Turkey picks the strong horse

Yesterday I mentioned the phenomenon of Turkey, under the ‘moderate’ Islamist AKP party, distancing itself from Israel and the US. As part of the process, Turkish PM ErdoÄŸan never misses an opportunity to attack Israel:

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan on Sunday continued his verbal assault on Israel, according to Saudi paper Al Wattan, which quoted him as saying that that al Aksa Mosque, the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb “were not and never will be Jewish sites, but Islamic sites…”

Speaking to Palestinian journalists, ErdoÄŸan reportedly said, “Palestine [was] always at the top of Turkey’s priorities.” He expressed his support for the renewal of indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Donning a cloak of pan-Islamic identity, ErdoÄŸan told Al Wattan that he “loves my brothers in Fatah and my brothers in Hamas to the same degree, because they are my Muslim brothers and I cannot distinguish between them.”

Israel in the past enjoyed a close collaboration with Turkey in military matters, but this has been reduced recently. It’s likely that if the AKP continues with its efforts to reduce the influence of the army (by arresting and prosecuting officers for treason), that this trend will continue.

Relations between Turkey and the US have cooled since the Iraq war (which Turkey opposed because it strengthened the Kurdish PKK forces in the north in their desire to establish an independent state partly on Turkish territory) and more recently because of the genocide resolution.

At the same time, Turkey is collaborating more closely with Iran and Syria. Two weeks ago, Iran’s President Ahmadinejad visited Damascus. Barry Rubin noted an editorial in the state newspaper, al-Baath:

The editorial speaks of people in the Middle East who are coming together in an alliance rejecting Westernization, artificial borders, America, Israel, and various conspiracies. What countries are in this new alliance?

“Syria, Iran and Turkey, with their great peoples and their lively peoples and their rejectionist [the Syrian term for radical and anti-Israel, anti-American] policies are moving toward brotherhood….Welcome, President Ahmadinejad, in Syria.”

The Syrian regime is thus publicly trumpeting an Iran-Syria-Turkey alliance. The Turkish government’s policy, in theory, is one of getting along with everyone. But while one should not exaggerate how far this has gone—and, of course, this is a Syrian, not a Turkish statement—the fact is that Ankara is now politically as well as geographically much closer to Damascus and Tehran than to Washington DC.

If this is correct, then Turkey’s traditional Western-looking stance may be coming to an end, because it is not possible to align with the US and Iran at the same time.

My thinking is that ErdoÄŸan has simply asked himself where the regional power is going to reside in the future and made his choice.

This is really a historic moment for the Middle East. After WWII the US took up the mantle of former colonial power Britain, and faced off for control of the region with the Soviet Union. The Soviets lost, and the turning point was when Anwar Sadat expelled Russian military advisers in 1973, later moving Egypt into the US orbit.

Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia were the pillars of US strategy from then on, although American support for Israel was by no means as one-sided as the Arabs suggest. The US neutralized hostile Iran during the 1980’s by supporting Iraq — until Saddam overreached himself by invading Kuwait. But even after that, the US allowed him to remain in power as a counterbalance to Iran.

When Saddam was removed in 2003, Iran and Syria seized the opportunity to foment Sunni-Shiite violence; at the same time, the US had no coherent plan to create a stable government in a country without a democratic tradition, where elections were understood as a sectarian popularity contest, and where bombings are an accepted form of electioneering. It’s hard to see any outcome after the US leaves other than Iraq sliding into Iranian orbit.

At the same time, Iran is moving forward on several other fronts. Israel has been unable to prevent arms transfer to Hizballah in Lebanon via Syria, and the US has failed in getting diplomatic support for sanctions that might prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons (if indeed any form of sanctions could accomplish this). Iran has even bought itself influence on the Sunni Palestinian Hamas movement.

Meanwhile, the US is seriously strapped economically, partly because of the expensive wars it is fighting against radical islamists (although it will not name the enemy). Iran, on the other hand, is moving toward finally fully developing its massive oil reserves with Chinese help.

I don’t know if the US will be able to reverse the trend and reassert its power in the Mideast, or if, like Britain, be pushed aside, this time by Iran. This will be determined by the actions of the present and perhaps the next administration. This administration hasn’t yet shown the ability, will, or even much desire to maintain the US position.

But it looks like ErdoÄŸan thinks he knows the outcome, and has lined himself up with what he sees as the “strong horse” in the race.

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2 Responses to “Turkey picks the strong horse”

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    Thanks for this very interesting and informative analysis. I would however point out that the United States sees the situation very differently. General Petraeus said recently that he does not believe Iraq will slip into the Iranian orbit. He points out the ethnic difference between the Shiite Persians and the Shiite Arab Iraqis. He expresses a determination to cooperate with the Iraqi government for years to come. He may well be wrong, but when he goes on about the vastness of undeveloped Iraqi energy resources I have a sense the U.S. might remain in this game for a long time.
    On another front. Your analysis of Turkey’s retreat from the West is especially interesting. One of the elements so deeply troubling in this is the size and apparent capability of Turkey’s armed forces. Unlike Syria and Iran it apparently is a very good Army. While it seems unlikely at the moment who knows where they will go should the whole Mideast Islamist ‘aleyum’ on Israel get its act together. This is extremely worrisome.
    China is playing a spoiler role, and the U.S. debt to it is a great weakness. At this point President Obama seems at a loss as to how to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power. Worrisome indeed.

  2. Robman says:

    Turkey does have a good army, there is no doubt about that. But they hardly have the relative power of an Imperial Japan or Nazi Germany in their day. Technically, they are still part of NATO. I’m sure we have a LOT of intel on them, as do the Israelis. I’m also sure there are a lot of disaffected military officers friendly to both the U.S. and Israel who might, um, “reduce” their effectiveness. So, while this is definitely a problem, no need to panic.

    Bottom line: We better steel ourselves for some decisive action. Sitting around wringing our hands, hoping the Chinese will play nice, etc., this is a waste of time that only benefits are adversaries. We can’t expect much out of Obama, but his successor in 2012 will need to break some eggs for a nice Persian omellette. I hope by then it won’t be too late. I hope before then Israel doesn’t act out of desperation, and really muck things up (unless the only other option is that Iran gets nukes for sure). I hope that Obama grows a pair…that last one is like hoping that pigs will learn to fly, I know.

    Iran, is should be remembered, has an economy the size of Ohio. Their per capita income is about $8000, give or take. They have a small number of modern aircraft, but mainstay of their air force is still the 1970s technology F-4 Phantom 2. They have practically no navy. As to their army, they depended on groups of 10-year-old boys for “mine detectors” (A-jad helped lead and organize this facet of their war effort; tells you something about him).

    Iran is an amazing case study of a country that has used bluff and b.s. to make them look a lot stronger than they really are. This is an excellent demonstration of the power of ‘national will’ in the absence of any other factor of national power. It also shows how the lack of this quality – even if you have everything else going for you – is so debilitating, when one looks at the U.S. response.