ShamGen paves the way for Muslim Unity

In recent years rapid rapprochement has occurred between Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. The US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) political triumph in Turkey, and Bashar Assad’s succession of his father, were a series of events that brought these countries together. Turkey, Iran and Syria were pushed closer right after the occupation of Iraq. In the absence of a strong central authority in Iraq, the Kurds of the North began to demand an independent state. This was a deeply worrying development as the three countries have significant numbers of Kurdish minority populations. If the Kurds managed to establish an independent state in Northern Iraq this could encourage Kurdish minorities in their respective countries to make similar demands. The situation became worse when Northern Iraq-based Kurdish separatist groups supported by the US and Israel launched attacks on Turkey, Iran and Syria. Thus, officials of the three countries frequently met to discuss possible solutions to the problem. The ouster of Saddam Husain from power and his replacement by an elected government drove Iraq closer to the three countries, without the blessing of and much to the annoyance of the US.

It was not an easy task to bring these countries together as there were ideological and political hurdles to be overcome. Turkey’s foreign policy had been under the control of a pro-Western oligarchy that was unwilling to turn its face toward its eastern neighbours. Iran’s was dubbed “extremist” religious ideology and considered a threat by the secular elites. Syria was associated with Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) that Turkey had been fighting against for many decades. Saddam Husain of Iraq was never trusted by Turkish policy makers and was considered a source of instability. These countries had their own problems with each other and their relations had been built on mutual mistrust and suspicion, a situation tailor-made for and by Western interests in order to keep the area in a perpetual state of ambiguity and instability.

However, regional developments showed the leaders of these countries that their fates are sealed together; they need to overcome their differences and work together. Since then a rapid rapprochement has taken place between Turkey, Syria and Iran, and now joined by Iraq, it reached its peak last month. Iranian deputy Vice President Ali Aghamohammadi was quoted in the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) as saying: “As offered by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, tourists can visit the four countries with the joint visa.” Aghamohammadi was referring to ShamGen, a joint visa that will enable citizens of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq to travel to any of these countries. This was a major breakthrough for relations between the four countries as it heralded the creation of a new regional organization that would form an economic, political and social unity.

While hosting Bashar al-Assad for an iftar program in Istanbul, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, the initiator of the project, discussed this idea with his guest. He said “If Europeans have Schengen, we can have Shamgen” indicating that this project-in-prospect might become an alternative to the European Union. And when Erdogan visited Lebanon last year he publicly announced the project: “EU has Schengen. Why can’t we create something similar? Why is there fear and reluctance? It is impossible to understand this.”

On both occasions Erdogan’s reference to Europe indicated that aside from pushing for regional cooperation the project meant more for Turks. Turkey has been furious with the EU’s reluctance to allow it accession. Erdogan’s comments emphasized that Turkey did not lack alternatives; if EU was not willing to accept Turkey, Turkey could initiate a similar economic and even political organization. Turks have increasingly started to believe that their Islamic heritage is a major impediment for their EU membership. As long as they remain devoted Muslims, odds are very low for Turkey’s accession. This is why Erdogan clearly distinguished between them and us.

For Erdogan, they represents Western culture, which has always excluded Islam or Islamic values and refers to Islam as a major threat to their way of life. A rising tide of anti-Islamic sentiment in European countries further affirmed this thesis. In terms of we, what Erdogan means is a cultural and religious bond between countries that identify themselves as having similar characteristics. People of these countries have shared common beliefs and values which enabled them to relate to one another.

Considering the current economic crisis in Europe and the rising trend of anti-Islamic sentiment, Turkey might find a more respectable place among its Eastern neighbours, and indeed greater economic prospects, far better than what the Europeans could offer. For example, since 2002 trade between Turkey and Iran has increased more than six-fold, reaching $7.5 billion in 2007. In November 2008, a major Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between the two countries in which Iran agreed to transfer 35 billion cubic meters of gas to Europe through Turkey. According to official statistics, Turkey receives 18 million cubic meters of gas per day from Iran, which makes Iran second only to Russia as the largest supplier of gas to Turkey. Official figures released in July 2009 show that 38 firms partially owned by Turks were active in the East Azerbaijan province of Iran.

In June 2007 Turkey and Iran signed another MoU under which Turkey’s state-run company will participate in three major natural gas fields in the South Pars region of Iran. This will enable Turkey to get half of its needs for gas.

There has also been a rapid increase in the number of Iranian tourists who visit Turkey. Previously around 600,000 Iranians visited Turkey annually; however, recently figures have reached record levels. Within the last two years, more than two million Iranians visited Turkey annually. This is not only a one way travel; the number of Turks who visit Iran has also increased dramatically.

Further, Turkey’s economic relations with Syria and Iraq are advancing. Turkish companies have signed lucrative contracts in Syria and Iraq for building houses, schools, roads, airports and infrastructure.

The volume of trade between Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq has currently reached around $40 billion a year, which might increase to $200 billion with the ShamGen project. According to Ali Aghamohammadi, Iran, Syria, Turkey and Iraq are working on a free-trade zone project called SÄ°IT, a name created with first letters of the names of each country. From an economic point of view this project envisages that each county will be able to use the others’ seas without restriction.

On the other hand, while strengthening relations with Iran, Syria and Iraq, Turkey wants to keep its relations steady with the Saudis who are worried about closer cooperation between the four countries. However, one thing the Turks do not want to see is another regional conflict sparked under the pretext of a sectarian stand-off. That is why Erdogan reacted when Saudi tanks rolled into Bahrain in a move to implement a de facto occupation. He publicly addressed Saudi King Abdullah with the forceful words: “We don’t want new Karbalas!” in a clear warning to prevent Saudis from committing massacre against the Shi’is of Bahrain as well as the restless Shi’is of Saudi Arabia. According to the World Bulletin website, Erdogan passed this message to King Abdullah personally in a private meeting during his official visit to Saudi Arabia in March. Erdogan also told King Abdullah, “it is futile to ignore peoples’ demand and delay reforms.”

It is arguable how much the Saudis would take heed of Erdogan’s warnings, since they have the full backing of the US. But the statement is important coming from a very popular Sunni leader who sees no justification for the Saudi occupation of Bahrain. Instead he operates above sectarian considerations and considers the Shi’is as valuable allies.

It remains to be seen whether the ShamGen project will be fully implemented and create regional unity, especially during a time when differences are being encouraged and exploited by external powers. However, there is ever-increasing potential and will for this unity, which will inevitably be realised sooner rather than later.