BY: AMBASSADOR (ret.) JACOB ROSEN-KOENIGSBUCH
We are witnessing the dawn of a new “Great Game” in the Middle East. The turmoil that has engulfed the Middle East since the outbreak of the so-called “Arab Spring” in 2011 brought about the collapse of the regimes in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen, as well as catastrophic upheavals in Syria and Iraq. The collapse of state power in the region, the rise and fall of Islamic State (ISIS) and the realignment of tribal structures are just a few of the more immediate consequences.
This ongoing turmoil combined with the perceived waning of great power influence has opened the doors to the gradual reemergence of two regional powers with imperial pasts and contemporary aspirations to restore their glorious heydays: Turkey, the heir to the once might Ottoman Empire, and Iran, the Old Persian Empire.
Both countries have long and well established administrative and governance experience, as well as traditions accumulated through generations and now find themselves at the prospective forefront of new regional opportunities. Arguably, both countries endeavor to extend their spheres of influence by restructuring the most destabilized parts of the Middle East region: Iraq and Syria in the North; and Yemen, which is guarding the southern approaches to the Red Sea in the south.
Naturally, this new regional power rivalry has deepened mistrust between Ankara and Tehran, underlined by the deep historical Sunni-Shia divide pitting Sunni-dominated Turkey against the Shia-dominated Islamic Republic of Iran.
For example, the recent Turkish military activity in Afrin in Northern Syria (Operation Olive Branch), under the pretext of chasing terrorists and checking the Kurds along its southern flank, was met with suspicion by Iran, which saw it as an attempt to infringe on Syria’s territorial integrity and establish a permanent Turkish presence there. Conversely, Turkey has watched with misgiving Iran’s ongoing attempt to establish a land corridor stretching from Iran via Iraq and Syria, both weakened states, to the Mediterranean Sea either in Syria or Lebanon. (This land corridor is sometimes dubbed “The Shia Crescent”.)
Iranian and Turkish interests are also clashing in Northern Iraq, where Iran has encroached on Turkey’s historic and economic interests, especially when it comes to its relationship with the Turkmen minority and the export of natural resources from the oil rich province of Kirkuk. If Iran will manage to establish the intended land corridor to the Mediterranean it will have an impact on Turkey’s economy, which earns revenues from the oil pipelines passing through its territory.
The latest competition between the two regional powers is likely to occur in the south. The Iranian involvement in the current war in Yemen has by now been well documented. Among other things, Iran has been sending advanced weapons and military advisors to its Shi’ite ally, the Houthi movement, which recently threatened to disrupt navigation at the southern tip of the Red Sea. The Ottoman Empire ruled Yemen for several centuries and understands the perils of pro-Iranian regime there.
Turkey’s involvement in the countries neighboring the Gulf of Aden is also on the rise. Following the rift between Qatar and its Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf, Turkey hurried to dispatch an extra military contingent to its forces, which have been stationed there since 2014. The recent visit of Turkish President Erdogan to Sudan resulted, amongst other things, in an agreement which will allow Turkey to restore the old Sudanese port of Suakin. This port, during Ottoman rule, was the main departure point of Muslims from Africa to the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
The new Sudanese-Turkish agreement allows the presence of the Turkish Navy in the port. Needless to say, that is not welcomed by neighboring countries and regional rivals such as Iran. Turkey is building a military presence both in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf to the west and east of the watchful Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which is also a factor that cannot be ignored as the Kingdom is immersed in an intense dispute with Iran. Interestingly, the move coincides with Houthi threats to shut down the Red Sea and interrupt shipping in the Gulf of Aden.
Both Iran and Turkey already have a naval presence in the region under the umbrella of the international anti-piracy naval task force patrolling the Horn of Africa. As in Qatar, Turkey has maintained a military presence in Somalia since 2014. A serious disruption of the maritime routes in the Red Sea and its environs may have a tremendous impact on the oil supply from the Middle East to Europe. It is of little surprise than that both Turkey and Iran are maintaining a naval presence around the Horn of Africa. Interestingly, one may observe that this jockeying for strategic interests has resulted in an almost symmetrical positioning of Turkish and Iranian forces or proxies in the area facing off against one another.
Although history never repeats itself exactly along the same lines, it is recommended that this growing competition between Iran and Turkey for regional influence be closely observed for it is slated to increase in intensity. Both countries will certainly need local partners and proxies as sub-contractors to counter each other and effectuate their respective strategies. Turkey is counting on the Sunni Arabs while Iran is counting on the pro-Shia elements. But in the shifting sands of the region there might be other configurations that will require or compel other parties to join in and select sides bringing even more complexity to the region, and risk. This is especially the case when the southern approaches of the Red Sea and their oil supply routes will be in danger. The Middle East’s new great game is on.
Ambassador (ret.) Jacob Rosen-Koenigsbuch served as Israel's ambassador in Jordan (2006-2009). He is currently an independent consultant on demographic mapping and collects books about "Lawrence of Arabia."
The views expressed in this post reflect those of the author and not that of the EastWest Institute.