Last week, events in Turkey and Iraq rocked the region and beyond in an unusual, startling way that should be seen as the new normal. A quick political shift in these two countries illustrates the moment. To be specific, both Ankara and Baghdad stepped into a new direction that is likely to affect Iran the most in terms of the Levantine strategic environment.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan saw Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu as an impediment to revamp the country’s constitution to boost presidentialism. In addition, Erdogan and Davutoglu didn’t see eye to eye on other issues as a multi-million-dollar corruption scandal and the Kurdish issue, specifically the PKK, where the former sought a fist and the latter a flyswatter according to a Turkish interlocutor.
But at the heart of the matter was full control over the Justice and Development Party (AKP) where Davutoglu headed the part which was interfering with Erdogan’s legislative plans. The Turkish president’s quest for absolute authority is now assured. While Ankara underwent a move towards power concentrated in the office of the Turkish presidency, Iraq’s political system, established with the help of America in the early 2000s, literally fell apart.
Iraqi cleric Maqtada al-Sadr successfully set in motion a series of event culminating in the first ransacking of the coveted Green Zone.
After months of demonstrating for better water and power supplies now accompanied by protests against the corruption and lack of governance by the Baghdad government, al-Sadr’s minions – and this is important – from all Iraqi social strata – made good on their promise to show their strength and resolve by occupying the Iraqi parliament building for three days. The sacred grounds of the Green Zone became occupied territory. The shock by observers was palpable.
Al-Sadr is no stranger to Iraqi politics as any astute observer knows. While the Iraqi cleric’s acumen gave birth to the Mahdi Army espousing obviously Shiite rights and attacked and killed US forces, the Shiite cleric al-Sadr played the Baghdad power game with both Iraqi prime ministers, first Nuri Al-Maliki, and, second, Haidar al-Abadi.
Turkey’s turn to presidentialism directly affects Ankara’s foreign policy toward the Levant and ultimately Iran’s interestsDr. Theodore Karasik
A famous violent inter-Iraqi sectarian spasm occurred in 2008, when al-Maliki launched the “Charge of the Knights” against al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in the city of Basra. ISIS’s drive into Iraq almost two years ago also played a role in al-Sadr actions on the home front. It egged the cleric to take action through his militia network and to chastize Baghdad government for incompetence.
To be clear, al-Sadr is popular now because he is arguing that the al-Abadi government should appoint a non-sectarian government of technocrats. More salient is that al-Sadr approach is now receiving support for what is seen as his “Arab first” policy in Iraq. According to a GCC official, some GCC states want to encourage al-Sadr’s “Arabism” by recalling the make-up of the Shiite cleric’s minion. Interestingly, al-Sadr is playing a geographical game between Najaf and Qom based on ethnicity first: “For them, it is a first step to getting Iran out of Iraq’s Arab business.”
Leader or politician?
The press loves to put al-Sadr in the Tehran camp given that the Shiite cleric has spent substantial amounts of time in the Islamic Republic. Sorry folks, not so fast and certainly not that easy. Al-Sadr is certainly responsible for murder and mayhem. But the interesting point is al-Sadr is not trying to be a religious leader but an Arab politician; the reaction of Shiite militias to al-Sadr’s actions is without doubt proof. If true, that fact is breaking new ground. The question is whether al-Sadr’s moves are a temporary manifestation or a caricature that will take on a reality of its own.
Turkey’s turn to presidentialism directly affects Ankara’s foreign policy toward the Levant and ultimately Iran’s interests. With power concentrated in Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister is most certainly moving aggressively in his vision of the Levant. This vision, where Turkey has a major say in Syria and Iraq’s future, runs directly opposed to blatant Iranian interests to influence local politics and economics. Moreover, Ankara’s new strategic and tactical relationship with the GCC states against Iranian designs just got a boost with Davutoglu’s exist. The establishment of a Turkish military presence in Qatar is just a sample of Turkey’s alignment with the GCC monarchies.
Iraq’s parliamentary system is in shambles; al-Sadr made sure to shake things up. There are now new demands for action and the al-Abadi government is going to several rounds to correct the Iraqi dysfunction, greed, and corruption. Significantly, anti-Iranian chants were prominent during the Green Zone occupation and this element questions the ability for Tehran to keep its puppet strings active in Iraq and certainly, as time goes by Iran.
Tehran is certainly at a crossroads of its own between the pragmatists and the principalists despite the second round election held last week. Their infighting bleeds also into Tehran’s objectives in the Levant that intersect with Ankara and Baghdad security interests. We know that the principalists will interfere in the Levant regardless of pragmatists’ wishes and desires.
Now with Iranian Prime Minister Rowhani trying to transfer IRGC funding to the Iranian Armed Forces, the backlash will be felt stronger and quicker. Thus, the challenge to Tehran will be what comes next from Turkey and Iraq observing the machinations of the Iranian political universe and the impact on their own respective situations.
The real question is not what the IRGC will be doing in the Levant but MOIS, the Iranian intelligence service, who controls the coffers for operations especially economic linkages through trade companies and tourist agencies. MOIS will have its hand’s full with the recent developments.
Overall, in the space of a few days, the Turkish and Iraqi states are muting into a new political reality that affects Iran’s calculus in the Levant. While Turkey is literally circling the wagons politically and tactically, Baghdad, via al-Sadr, is undergoing a catharsis that is social by nature and Arab identity in practice. The coming months will illustrate further shifts that will challenge many states in the region especially the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Gulf-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans. He tweets @tkarasik