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Turkish Initiative In Arab World Stalls

August 27, 2013

Plans for the `Neo-Ottoman’ Empire in the Middle East have stalled

by Ibrahim Kazerooni and Rob Prince

As we write these words, from all appearances, the United States, UK and France, with considerable support from Israel, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, is on the verge of launching a Cruise missile attack against Syria. Turkey, for its part, has been an intimate player in the US plans to bring down the Syrian Assad government and will continue to play a prominent role to this end. But, despite this, Turkish influence in the Arab world is starting to shrink as the Turkish alliance with Qatar and the Moslem Brotherhoods is unraveling, and with it, a card in Washington’s Middle Eastern deck is crumbling. Central to all this are the events in Egypt, the removal of Morsi from power and the campaign by the current Egyptian government to crush the Moslem Brotherhoods politically.

In what follows, we look at the evolution – and devolution – of Turkey’s position.

Turkey and the New Regional Political Realignment

In the past few days a number of reports have surfaced on Turkey’s indignation on the turn over the events in Egypt. Yeni Shafak the newspaper close to the Turkish prime minister published a scathing article against the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, UAE as well as Palestinian Mahmud Abbas calling them the “the axis of evil” in the Middle East. This was followed by Bekir Bozdag, Turkish deputy prime minister, attacking the Arab Cooperation Council for not taking a stronger position on Egypt’s military takeover and the removal of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhoods (MB) from office. Turkish leaders have also taken to laying the blame for the Egyptian coup at Israel’s doorstep (ironically, as Turkey moves closer to Israel strategically, with Washington’s encouragement).

The question that emerges is: “Why the Turkish government is so infuriated by the turn of events in Egypt?”  Before suggesting an answer it is useful to journey back a bit in the Middle Eastern history. There can be no denial that Middle East constitutes one of the most important global regions, not just for its vast natural resources, for its geopolitical location and its immeasurable contribution to global human culture. Any shift in the regional balance of power would have global consequences for both regional as well as global stakeholders. Particularly critical for the stakeholders (regional and global) are the shifts that lead to new regional realignments.

During the Cold War, the Middle East was divided between the US and USSR, where Iran, Turkey and Israel, with the tacit support of Saudi Arabia had created a powerful regional base of support for US interests. Opposing them were the Arab states with more affinity towards the USSR, such as Syria and for a period, Egypt, and to a degree Iraq. The Islamic Revolution of Iran, Camp David Accords and especially the collapse of the USSR put an end to this classic bipolar orientation.

During the 80s Egypt fount itself generally isolated from its Arab partners for having signed the Camp David Accord; Turkey was going through its own internal political crises with the military taking over the helm of government. Post 1979, the US administration tried to limit Iran’s growing influence of this new realignment by supporting Saddam to attack Iran.

The Iraq-Iran war, which went on for eight years and included the deaths of more than 1.3 million people on both sides, weakened both countries. The regional beneficiaries of this strife were the Saudis and Israel, both of whom saw their regional position strengthened.  Globally, the U.S. position strengthened as two potential regional opponents were weakened. The collapse of the USSR only served to strengthen Washington’s position that much more.

During the years of the Bush Presidency, the regional situation shifted once again. The failure of the US plan to create a “New Middle East” by invading Iraq, and the subsequent withdrawal from Iraq – a strategic defeat for the US masqueraded to this day as a victory – left a large vacuum in the balance of power in the region.  For a brief moment, it appears that a new constellation of forces that included Syria, Turkey and Iran was in the making.

By that that time, Turkey in particular, was certainly looking for a more expanded regional role. It had emerged from a long period of political instability with Tayyip Erdogan at the helm of Turkish government. An idea of how at the turn of the millennium Turkey imagined its regional role shaping up was revealed in a commentary by Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. In 2010, he is quoted as having stated that: “Israel as an independent state is illegitimate in the region and, as such, is destined to disappear… a bi-national state will be established on all of the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River in which Jews and Palestinians will live.” As Davutoglu understood it “…Turkey will be the protector state of the above-cited bi-national state within a number of years.” , a statement which  clearly supports our assessment.

Post Millenial Shifts

Things have changed since the early 2000s.

Several events have forced the neighboring states, particularly Iran, to work for a new alliance to counter US and Israeli plan for the region. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent US defeat there have strengthened Iran’s influence throughout the region. In order to weaken this growing Iranian influence, the United States has targeted Syria for regime change, as Syria is Iran’s strategic ally in the region. Heavily relying on regional allies – proxies would be a more accurate term – Turkey, Saudis, the Qataris as well as a few others, the United States has been actively working for some time to engineer the crisis in Syria in order to weaken Iran’s position.

Turkey has played an important role in Washington’s Syria destabilization program. It has aligned itself closely with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and Qatar in its bid to counter both Saudi and Iranian growing regional dominance. But with the fall of MB from power in Egypt and the end of US’s short lived flirtation with Qatar, Turkey finds itself in a pickle and isolated from key regional allies. The Iranian realignment appears to go from strength to strength despite’s Washington’s efforts to bring down the regime in Teheran. With the recent retreat of Qatar as a key regional player, the Saudis are once again back in favor with the US.

The existential question for Turkey is what next? Whatever happens, its influence in the Middle East has suffered a blow; its ability to significantly define the political direction of its Arab neighbors (and Israel) has shrunk, almost overnight.

As far as its relationship with NATO and the US are concerned, we do not anticipate any major shift in policy. Turkey’s relationship with NATO is now 61 years old, going back to 1952. During the Cold War years, Turkey was seen as a bulwark against Communism. It is only with the collapse of Communism in 1989, that Turkey’s attention began to shift towards the Middle East where a new role, in conjunction with US strategic initiatives there, began to take shape and where the United States began to probe the possibility of using Turkey more actively as a counterweight to growing Iranian influence.

To date the United States has not been able to replace what was once one of the pillars of its Middle East policy – the Shah’s Iran. Allies Israel, for all its strategic importance, remains politically and economically largely isolated from the Arab mainstream and Saudi Arabia, while an important ally has never had the kind of weight in the Middle East as the Shah’s Iran.

From Washington’s view point, playing `the Turkish card’ in the Arab World had possibilities. On the one hand, unlike Israel, Turkey is a predominantly Moslem country and one with a long history in the Middle East, especially during the period of the Ottoman Empire. It is also an intensely capitalist country, open to the continued economic penetration of global capital into the region and it has long been a NATO participant.

Turkey’s Regional Politics – Old Wine, New Bottle – actually the bottle isn’t that new

There is every reason to believe that Turkey will continue its pro-Western orientation and Euro-Atlantic institutions and maintain strategic relations with the United States. The increasing strength of Iran’s regional power and the dominance of the Saudis, the long term adversary of the Turkish government for the regional supremacy in the Sunni world, may compel Turkey to go back to its old and trusted regional ally Israel. Despite rhetorical flourishes to the contrary, we are beginning to see a much closer relation between the two US regional clients.

There are rumors that Israeli military has been given more access to Turkish military bases for attack on Syria, and Turkish ships are beginning to use the port of Haifa instead of Egyptian ports for transferring Turkish goods to the Middle East. Turkey will continue the rhetoric of demonizing the Israeli regime for internal political consumption while privately strengthening their relationships.

With regards to Turkish foreign policy; there will definitely be a major shift in Turkey’s earlier stated multi-dimensional and “zero-problem with the neighbors” foreign policy, which was intended to reflect Turkey’s aspirations in the region: to become a problem-solving country, gain regional power and become a powerful player in the international chessboard. The regional strength of Iranian alliances has certainly dampened that aspiration. It remains to be seen, in the light of the new anticipated alliances and realignments how would Turkey react to the new regime of Dr. Rowhani in Iran.

Economically, Turkey will pay a price for its strong support for the Egyptian MB administration of Mohammad Morsi. The MB connection put Turkey in conflict with Saudi Arabia, whose position in Egypt is greatly strengthened by the July military coup (which has, at least in its initial stages, broad based popular support). A few weeks ago Abu Dhabi declared that it would withdraw its economic investments in Turkey. It is expected that the Saudis and the UAE will follow suit. As this happens, Turkey will feel an economic squeeze in a short-to-medium term.

As for Syria, it is our assessment that the current policy would continue in the absence of decisive victory for the Syrian government. Syria makes up the link which brings together the US, and its regional allies Turkey, Saudis, and Israelis. We do not see any hope for convening Geneva2 peace talks, so long as the US continues its support for the Syrian rebels, many of whom are little more than a bunch of mercenaries. If it were to be convened, we do not see Geneva 2 resulting in any positive outcomes, as long as Washington is bent on regime change in Damascus. Turkey’s role in the Syrian events will continue – to be a base for destabilization of the Assad government, working in close tandem with Washington, but less central to the flow of events there than Saudi Arabia.

The Kurdish issue is another thorny area for the Turkish government. While Erdogan thought that he had a deal with the Kurds only few months ago, the regional alignment of Kurds inside Syria with the government which in part has involved the Iraqi Kurds is a further destabilizing and threatening factor against the Turkish and by implication the US plan for the regain. So on yet another front, Turkey’s position is weakening.

Turkey long ago cast its fate with Washington, first during the Cold War and now in the post-Cold War period. For a while nationalists throughout the region saw a hope for an independent Turkish regional policy and a model for what has been packaged by the US as `moderate Islam’. `Moderate Islam’ as it existed in Egypt and Tunisia turns out not to be very moderate politically and completely in sync with U.S. neo-liberal policies economically. Turkey was the economic center of that program. The ‘spiritual centers of moderate Islam’ has collapsed in Egypt and in Tunisia it is tottering. As for Turkey’s `independent’ policy – like its economic policies, being just another face of US regional domination, is falling apart.  Old wine, new bottle – and in many ways, not even the bottle is that new.

Ibrahim Kazerooni has just completed a joint PhD program at the Iliff School of Theology and University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies. 

Rob Prince is a Lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies. 

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