Going back to the time of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled from present-day Turkey and presided over a dominion which stretched across much of the Middle East and parts of North Africa, the Muslim world was divided between two sides of the Islamic coin: the first was that of the majority Sunnis and the second was of the minority Shiites. At its core, the Sunni-Shia divide was over a succession crisis—neither side could agree who should succeed Muhammed, the founder of Islam. The two sides engaged in an endless conflict that still rages today.
History at a Glance
Even at the height of the Ottoman Empire (which led the Sunni side), the majority-Shiite state of Persia (present-day Iran) maintained a separate power base in the region. While the Ottoman Empire enjoyed mostly-cordial relations with the various rulers of Shiite Persia, there were conflicts—such as the Safavid-Ottoman wars (which lasted on-and-off from the mid-1500s to the mid-1600s). These conflicts ended in decisive Persian defeats at the hands of the Ottomans.
The Sunni Turks were often the difference in preventing the Shiite Persians from acquiring regional dominance. They can be that difference again. What’s more, short of the United States warring against a NATO ally, Turkey, there is little that Washington can do to stop Turkey’s advance.
The historical norm for the Muslim world, after all, was not one of Western rule or administration. Western dominance was a relatively new phenomenon that came about mostly because of the total collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. When the Ottoman Empire vanished from the map, to be replaced by a much smaller and weaker, more secular—though autocratic—Turkey, the British, French, Russians, and others stepped into the Middle East to fill the proverbial void (and to exploit the natural resources there).
As Bernard Lewis argued, the European colonialists created new political entities based on the nation-state model that had served Europe so well. Yet, this new model was not an effective way to govern the Muslim Middle East. After all, Islam does not recognize the nation-state as a viable political entity. Such political formations violate the divine laws of Muhammed. For, according to Islam, there can only be one political entity and that is the Umma. Without the Umma being front-and-center—with all of the antecedent laws set forth in the Quran—of any Islamic polity, there is only apostasy.
Plus, the Europeans did not take into account the fact that their new nation-states would force people and groups who ordinarily hated each other to live under the same regime together. Once the Europeans abandoned the Middle East during the early Cold War years, these states began to buckle under the geopolitical pressures of that time.
Returning to History in the Mideast
By the time the Cold War ended, and America enjoyed its “unipolar moment”, as it turned out, history was not ending. It was merely returning to its natural ebb and flow—especially in the blood-soaked Middle East. Jihadism exploded on the scene. Since the 1979 revolution, Iran had been dominated by an overtly Islamist government with a Shiite bent. Not to worry, though, the Sunnis got in on the action also. Al Qaeda and other Islamist groups proliferated throughout the region, arguing that American-backed Sunni states, such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, were illegitimate “apostate” states. These jihadist networks called for a return to the caliphate of old, when one Islamic regime ruled over the region (until the First World War that power had traditionally been the Ottoman Empire, but Bin Laden was not interested in seeing Turkey reclaim the mantle of leadership in the Islamic world).
Today, Iran fancies itself as being a bulwark against the Sunni Muslim community, the Jewish state of Israel, and the Christian “crusaders,” as led by the United States. They have made war against the Sunni Arab states, namely Saudi Arabia, a primary foreign policy objective while simultaneously seeking to extend Iranian reach beyond its present-day borders and throughout the various Shiite communities that exist all over the Middle East. Iran’s Sunni Arab neighbors, led by Saudi Arabia, as well as the Israelis—all backed by the United States—have worked to contain the spread of malign Iranian influence. Yet, the Sunni Arab states do not appear capable of constraining Iran’s continuous expansion.
Syria’s Kurds Are Sacrificed to Better Contain Iran
More recently, the United States has reduced its role in Syria, working to remove the remaining 1,000 Special Forces elements that had been fighting ISIS. In the process, Turkey has deployed forces into northern Syria, and has started bombing America’s Kurdish allies there. Turkey and the Kurds have a long animosity toward each other, with Turkey considering the Kurds as a terrorist group and the Kurds claiming they merely want national independence.
Beyond President Trump’s controversial decision, though, are two hugely beneficial moves: first, Trump is getting Turkey to take more ownership of the Middle East, allowing for American forces to begin the much-needed drawdown of its forces that have been fighting there for years. Second, from a geopolitical perspective, this move is brilliant because it has already elicited cries of protest from Iran. You see, Iran may dislike the Kurds and want to see American forces withdraw from the region, but the last thing Iran wants is to have a competent foe, like Turkey, increase its military presence in the Mideast. This is especially because Turkey is a Sunni Muslim state and its leader, the autocratic Recep Erdogan, has spent years openly declaring his intention to reconstitute the old Ottoman Empire (under his rule) in the Middle East.
Know-nothing American elites can protest Trump’s decision to abandon the Syrian Kurds, but this is not a moral discussion. This is about getting America’s regional partners to resist Iran while at the same time enhancing their ability to wage a sustained campaign of ideological rollback against Iran on their own. The United States needs a multilateral framework for restoring order in the Middle East—and any formulation, for better or worse, will have to include autocratic, Islamist Turkey.
Turkey, a NATO ally, may be a nuisance but it is a competent military (especially compared to America’s Sunni Arab allies or Iran). By getting Turkey more involved in the Middle East, President Trump is ensuring that the region returns to its historic geopolitics: one that is generally divided between a Turkey-led Sunni Islam against Shiite Iran. In such a world, the United States can return to its preferred role of offshore balancer while still having considerable influence over the Turks, Sunni Arabs, and Israelis arrayed against Iran.
Whether Trump’s geopolitical gambit can work or not is another question entirely. But this is a reasonable move (compared to Trump’s other options in the Mideast). Only time will tell whether President Trump’s decision to leave the Syrian Kurds to their doom at the hands of Turkey will work or not. At least the United States is not having to attack yet another Mideast country, though.