Turkey and the Middle-East Realignment

Turkey. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Turkey. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Cross-posted from the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

The news broke less than three weeks ago, on October 3, that Turkey, a longtime, staunch NATO member, just broke an unwritten rule of that global military alliance: it has announced it is considering a major $3.2 billion arms purchase from China of an advanced missile defense systems. The announcement triggered something approaching a panic in NATO circles. A number of commentators argue that this is Turkey’s revenge, Turkey being dissatisfied with NATO’s refusal to engage more militarily in the Syrian conflict, and worse, the U.S. change of gears – or seeming one – from an attack mode to negotiating.

This is undoubtedly true to a certain extent, but other, weightier factors are most likely at play, among them a regional shift in U.S. Middle East policy – a shift, in the aftermath of the popularly supported Egyptian military coup away from supporting the Muslim Brotherhood towards once again, giving Saudi Arabia a freer hand in helping to implement Washington’s regional strategic objectives. Enhancing the Saudi role – which bodes ill for the region – entailed somewhat downgrading Turkey’s role and slighting Ankara, after having courted and encouraged them to play a more active role in the Arab World. All that blew up in Turkey – and Washington’s face – in the Syrian conflict.

At the heart of the shift is the Obama Administration’s new attitude towards negotiating a settlement of the Syrian conflict and opening what appears to be, by all accounts, a serious political dialogue with Iran. This has somewhat shaken Washington’s traditional allies – Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – all of whom were confused and surprised – and in no small measure – irritated by Washington’s new political posture. As the dust clears, it is apparent that Washington is somewhat downplaying Turkey’s role as a key element in Washington’s Middle-East supporting cast of players. This has created no small amount of resentment in Ankara (and in Tel Aviv, Jeddah as well).

And now the jilted – and still proud – Turks are angry and so they turn to China for arms as a means of protesting fate and announcing their independence. There is less here than meets the eye; Turkey is not about to bolt from the U.S./NATO camp and align itself with Iran, Syria and Hezbollah – it is too entrenched – but still, it suggests that there is restlessness among the ranks of Washington’s Middle Eastern thanes, unhappy that the Obama Administration has moved from planning for war in Syria to moving towards a negotiating posture.

Whatever Turkey’s enhanced role in the Arab world, after a brief Washington-encouraged flirtation, is about to shrink significantly once again. Ankara’s dream of reasserting its influence in the Arab regions of the Ottoman Empire collapsed with it. Let us probe how some of this shift played out.

Turkey and the Egyptian Coup

After the (generally) popular supported July 3, Egyptian military coup, a number of reports surfaced on Turkey’s indignation over the turn of events there. Yeni Shafak, the newspaper close to the Turkish prime minister, published a scathing article against the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, and the 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 Brotherhood (MB) from office.

Rather than dealing with the underlying domestic reasons, Turkish leaders took to laying the blame for the Egyptian coup at Israel’s doorstep (ironically, as Turkey moves closer to Israel strategically, with Washington’s encouragement), doing so strangely enough at the same time on a more profound level, Ankara and Tel Aviv were in the process of major U.S.-encouraged political fence mending.

Some Historical Perspective

Why was the Turkish government so infuriated by the turn of events in Egypt?  Before suggesting an answer it is useful to journey back a bit in Middle-Eastern history. There can be no denial that the Middle East constitutes one of the most important global regions, not just for its vast natural resources, but 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 found 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, Iraq and Iran, 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, especially as Turkish efforts to gain entry into the EU were again, rebuffed, it appears that a new constellation of forces that included Syria, Turkey and Iran was in the making. By that that time, Ankara was certainly looking for a more expanded regional role. Rather than looking west to Europe to extend its political influence, Turkey began to actively campaign to strengthen its ties with the many Turkic-speaking peoples to its east (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan) and to the states to its south in the Middle-East heartland, much of which had been part and parcel of the old Turkish run Ottoman Empire.

By the turn of the millennium, Turkey had emerged from a long period of political instability with Tayyip Erdogan at the helm of Turkish government. It is rather clear that at least in some quarters of power in Turkey, that Turks saw their own possible rise in power at the expense of Israeli regional influence. 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-Millennial Shifts

But much has changed since the early 2000s. An Iranian-Syrian-Turkish alliance did not emerge. Despite its public criticisms/attacks on Israel, Turkey’s strategic and economic relations with Israel remain strong. With two of the more important major U.S. military bases in the region, at Incirlik and Izmir, having strayed ever so slightly from the fold for a few years wandering in the desert, Turkey is back as an important U.S. strategic partner in the region, the prodigal son returned to its strategic home and place in Washington’s regional plans. Nothing makes that clearer than Turkey’s active role in support of the certain Syrian rebel factions at Washington’s behest.

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, the Saudis, and the Qataris, as well as a few others, the United States, its denials to the contrary, has been actively working for some time to engineer the crisis in Syria as a way of weakening Iran’s position.

In this regard, Turkey has played a key role in Washington’s Syria destabilization program.

It has aligned itself closely with the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar in its bid to counter both Saudi and Iranian growing regional dominance. The Muslim Brotherhood, a longstanding international organization dating back to the 1920s, has deep financial pockets and is politically well-connected within the Moslem world but lacked the support of a regional power to advance its program. The Brotherhood needed a power center, while Turkey, former Ottoman ruler of the region, needed a strong Arab partner to ease its way back into a region where it had long ruled, but was still viewed as a former colonial master (and in in many Arab quarters, still largely distrusted if not hated).

This Ankara-Brotherhood alliance of convenience had targeted Egypt in particular to extend its regional influence and with the Egyptian presidential election of Mohamed Morsi, Brotherhood candidate, it appeared that this strategy was in fact coming to fruition and with Turkey riding to greater regional influence as a result. Whatever else it has resulted in, the July 3 Egyptian military coup threw that emerging regional scenario into chaos, seriously deflating it, and with it, shrinking Turkish influence some – which had been riding the tide of the Brotherhood’s rise to power in Egypt.

But with the fall of Brotherhood from power in Egypt and the end of the 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 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. Should we be surprised that regardless of whatever public criticisms Ankara makes of Netanyahu’s Israel, that like the faithful guardian of U.S. regional interests that it has been for nigh unto 68 years, that where it counts – on the strategic and economic level – Turkey and Israel are finding their way back to one another?

Often downplayed or forgotten in the discussions of Turkey’s regional role is its longstanding participation in NATO, a relationship that we do not envision any major shift in policy in the foreseeable future. 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. Turks fought alongside American troops in Korea (1950-53). The solution of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis included provisions for the United States to withdraw medium-range nuclear missiles from Eastern Turkey in exchange for the Soviets withdrawing their nuclear missiles from Cuba.

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. Still, 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. Our ally Israel, for all its strategic importance, remains politically and economically largely isolated from the Arab mainstream and Saudi Arabia, while also an important ally, has never had the kind of weight in the Middle East as the Shah’s Iran.

From Washington’s viewpoint, 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. Rouhani in Iran.

Economically, Turkey will pay a price for its strong support for the Egyptian MB administration of Mohamed 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 regional allies Turkey, the Saudis, and the Israelis. We do not see any hope for convening Geneva 2 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 region. 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. neoliberal policies economically. Turkey was the economic center of that program. The “spiritual center 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, originally from Iraq, just received a joint PhD in Religion and International Studies from the Iliff School of Theology and the Korbel School of International Studies of the University of Denver. More of his work can be found at the Imam Ibrahim Kazerooni Blog. Rob Prince is a Lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies and publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.