The Middle East is getting through a painful and chaotic phase of transformation. In yet another try towards normalization, the region once more has failed to succeed. An alternative order that could have oriented the regional order towards popular legitimacy, civic rights, rule of law and market economy seems to remain in waiting. To that end, Turkey’s unique role is again called for.
Turkey’s star was rising in the Middle East prior to the Arab Spring. This had to do first with the country’s ability to engage with almost all groups, including confronting parties such as Israel and Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Second, was its exceptional position to be actively present in both Western and Middle Eastern fora. Turkey is the only NATO and Council of Europe member state with a Muslim majority, and a leading country in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). When Brussels decided to open up EU accession talks with Turkey, most regional leaders including the former Israeli Prime Minister Olmert and Iranian President Ahmadinejad voiced their support.
Turkey utilized this unique position in conflict resolution through various mediation efforts. Syria-Israel indirect talks, 2011 Turkey-Iran-Brazil nuclear deal made global headlines. Less known were its efforts for regional stability and cooperation such as Syria-Iraq talks, attempts for political conciliation in Iraq and Lebanon and moves to bridge the divergences between the so-called resistance front, i.e. Iran, Syria and Hezbollah and pro-Western regimes, i.e. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Gulf monarchies and Egypt. Beyond regional initiatives, Turkey literally undertook the EU’s Neighborhood policy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and sought ways to open channels of dialogue between Washington and Tehran and Damascus. Ankara was also the only Western government to engage Hamas after the 2006 elections.
The so-called “Turkish model” that blended popular democracy, civilian rule and market economy with local values was cited among the causes that led to the downfall of authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. The aspiration to emulate the Turkish route was seen by regional peoples as a feasible formula in their quest for dignity, legitimacy, and prosperity. Tehran was disappointed with the turn of events. This was because after an initial claim that welcomed much heralded “Islamic awakening,” the mullahs rightly understood that the motives were largely secular and Westernist that sought good governance and material betterment rather than anti-Western theocracy. In fact, nowhere the Iranian influence was visible, with the single exception of Bahrain, albeit even there the aspirations had more in common with Tahrir rather than the Azadi Square.
With retrospect, the Middle Eastern quest for democracy and civil rights initially won applause from the West. It was as if the assumption that Islam and democracy were irreconcilable turned falsifiable. The pace of the downfall of despotic regimes dazzled all. Two factors proved critical in overturning this optimistic scenario: First was the reaction and resistance by the perceived losers of the Arab Spring. Syria thus became a critical line of defense. Russia and Iran hastily stepped in to stem the tide. This primarily augmented the “numbered days” of Assad, but also relieved the pressures on the proponents of the ancien regimes. Second was American and Western reluctance to come forth with decisive support.
In the summer of 2011, the Syrian opposition was largely a civilian force barely with access to arms. Their thinking that thanks to the mounting international pressure, Assad and his supporters would give up turned out to be wrong. In fact, Assad’s calculus that the longer the fight, the better his chances of survival emboldened his minority regime to perpetuate an existential fight. As time passed, the opposition first lost sight of democratic objectives, then got demoralized as international support was not forthcoming, and finally lost ground as extremists gained the upper hand thanks to their transnational networks and better financial and fighting capabilities. This has been not a war Assad won, but a critical battle the international community failed.
The failure in Syria gave a respite to Arab monarchies and revived the ancien regimes’ hopes for comeback. Israel was also apprehensive about a new “Sunni crescent” from Tunisia to Damascus. Thus, a pseudo-coalition between Israel and Arab monarchies emerged that opposed the Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt and applauded the military coup that toppled democratically elected President Morsi. The United States was caught in between its discursive democracy promotion and proclivity for pro-Israel regimes, two incompatible approaches that eventually undermined the United States’ Egypt, if not overall regional policy.
Turkey thus found itself in a fragile position, unable to connect either with pro-democracy groups, which were now removed from office; and even worse, regional countries that opposed the revolutionary changes and opted for the antebellum status quo, including paradoxically Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. In effect, the Turkish predicament was not an offshoot of regional coalitions, but a bitter result of the inability to engage the Western powers to consequentially support the civilian aspirations in the region.
Currently, there is a perception that Turkey’s influence in the region is in wane and Iran’s on the rise, particularly after the nuclear deal in Geneva. As the reading goes, Iran has consolidated its regional position thanks to its hard power exercised in Syria. With American withdrawal from Afghanistan, the broader region will come into the Iranian fold. The United States had to concede to the Iranian might, now yielding to Iranian nuclear ambitions. Israel and Saudi Arabia are among the losers as Iran outclassed them in diplomacy. Egypt is in tatters, with no immediate sign of reclaiming its leadership position.
This picture is nothing but illusionary, hiding the fragility of the contemporary regional balances. Iran has domestic and external liabilities, which will impede any claim for regional leadership. Iranian domestic conciliation would be a difficult process to say the least. The regime’s anti-Western and now overtly anti-Sunni traits are stumbling blocks for regional clout. Its poor economic performance is hidden behind the sanctions regime, though their abolition will not grant smooth transition to welfare and prosperity. Iran was good at resisting and deconstructing an alternative regional order. Yet it would need a new geist to lead constructing one. The Gulf monarchies and Israel are in similar positions, successful to resist but incapable of remaking. Russian comeback is magnified, though Moscow has made many bad choices in the region to uphold a superior standing among regional peoples.
This is where again Turkey comes in. Turkey has been unable to impose a new regional order. Yet it is the existing model and example for an alternate and sustainable order. As long as Turkey keeps its house in order and relations with the West tangible, it would be a big shadow upon the anachronistic regimes. One way or other, the regional aspirations for normalization and globalization would recall Turkey’s unique role. Maybe this is something the West would then be willing to support.
(Photo Credit: The Guardian)