During a visit by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to Moscow earlier this week, the two sides announced that Iraq has signed contracts to purchase up to $4.2 billion worth of Russian weaponry. The news was quickly followed by a diplomatic contretemps between Russia and Turkey, when a Syrian Airlines plane that had departed Moscow for Damascus was forced to land in Ankara. The Turkish government subsequently announced that the ostensibly civilian flight had been carrying military equipment. Combined with the news that a visit by President Vladimir Putin to Turkey scheduled for this coming Monday had been postponed, it raised questions as to whether the bilateral relationship was headed for chilly territory. Just a few scant years ago, Turkey was being described by senior Russian officials as a strong and valued partner, while the post-Saddam Hussein government in Iraq routinely denounced Moscow for its long-standing support for the Iraqi dictator.
These two events are yet further indications that permanent friends are hard to find in the volatile and unpredictable world of Middle Eastern politics, particularly as the region weathers the turbulence unleashed by the Arab Spring. Old allies may become new opponents, and yesterday’s adversary can easily become today’s partner.
During the Cold War, the United States had forged an unofficial coalition embracing Israel, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni monarchies from Morocco to the Persian Gulf to both resist Soviet expansionism and then to contain revolutionary Iran. This grouping was remarkably resilient as long as there was a real threat from a menacing Soviet superpower as well as from a regional ideologue like Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. For a time before and immediately after the Iraq War of 2003, some elements within the U.S. national security apparatus flirted with what Ahmed Hashim termed “Shiaphilia” -- the belief that Arab Shiite communities would be more amenable to adopting a pro-American, secular worldview. But when the liberation of Baghdad did not produce the sweeping change in the region that was expected, the Bush administration fell back on the earlier model of relying on Sunni hereditary monarchs and authoritarian presidents to deliver stability in the area.