Michael Young
The National (Opinion)
June 10, 2010 - 12:00am

All politics is local, the saying goes. But quite often the instruments are found abroad. The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has shown how well he understands this. Last week he used Israel’s cretinous overreaction to the humanitarian flotilla to Gaza to curry favour in the Arab world and burnish his bona fides at home.

However, Mr Erdogan’s ability to play on Arab outrage represents a larger phenomenon, what we might call the “peripheralisation” of the Middle East.

The political agenda in the region increasingly is being set by non-Arab states on its periphery – Iran, Turkey, and, of course, Israel. Arab states often seem marginal in their own narrative, enfeebled by flawed social contracts and young, dissatisfied societies. They, by and large, are unable to offer sustained economic development and education, which leaves them with little ability to address major regional concerns.

Iran and Turkey have exploited this vacuum in recent years. Israel has been doing this for a longer time. However, the vacuum is not just caused by Arab weakness. The United States has left a yawning gap in the Middle East. It has failed to sponsor successful Arab-Israeli negotiations, lost ground in Lebanon, and under Barack Obama effectively abandoned Iraq, even as Washington has watched its Arab allies grow weaker.

For many, the Gaza episode offers elements of historical irony. That many Arab governments today depend on Turkey to defend Arab causes points to the failure of Arab nationalism, which was always about emancipation. Indeed, it began as a movement for emancipation from the Ottoman Empire. Yet no one could fail to notice that in the Arab zeal for Mr Erdogan was also a sense that “Sunni” Turkey can act as a counterweight to what Arabs fear most, a potent “Shiite” Iran.

Domestic Turkish politics were also a factor in the reaction to Gaza. Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has lost public support to the opposition Republican People’s Party. AKP parliamentarians have urged the government to hold early elections and take advantage of the nationalistic bounce generated by the Gaza affair. Mr Erdogan has also skilfully used Turkish hostility against Israel to put the AKP’s main rival, the Turkish armed forces, on the defensive. The military is a stalwart defender of the relationship with Israel.

Mr Erdogan has used Gaza to play the Arabs like a violin. His pro-Palestinian rhetoric buys Arab approval for a pittance. The prime minister sees the Middle East as a terrain ripe for an ambitious Turkey eager to expand its influence – in part, to compensate for the partial closing of its door to Europe.

This suggests that Turkish-Iranian competition will only accelerate. Tehran has been beating the Palestinian drum even harder than Turkey since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president. Turkey has avoided tension with Iran, but both have their eye on the same pasture.

Take what is happening in northern Iraq. Iranian forces have deployed two kilometres into Kurdistan, supposedly to combat Kurdish groups fighting in Iran. However, for most observers the real explanation is that Turkey and Iran are manoeuvring to fill the gap the Americans will leave behind when they withdraw all combat forces later this summer.

The Iranians moved in as Massoud Barzani, the Iraqi Kurdish leader, was in Turkey on a trip designed to strengthen his ties with Ankara. For the first time, Mr Barzani was received as head of the Kurdistan autonomous region. Tehran is sending the Kurds a clear warning that it will not cede its stake in Iraqi Kurdistan. Iran is concerned about both the repercussions for its own Kurdish population, but also that better Kurdish relations with Turkey might hurt Iran’s influence in Baghdad, especially since there are signs that the inter-Shiite post-election alliance it forged is collapsing.

Iran and Turkey are also competing over Syria. The Turks made a grand entry onto the scene when they mediated between Syria and Israel in 2008. They have even had a say in Syrian policy toward Lebanon. Syria’s president, Bashar al Assad, has made a strategic commitment to an alliance with Iran (and by extension with Hizbollah in Lebanon), while also trying to earn himself breathing space by consolidating his relationship with Turkey.

Mr Assad is trying to regain the valuable cards he lost in 2005, when he was forced to withdraw his army from Lebanon. Syria has also managed to obtain an important say in Palestinian affairs, through Hamas, whose leader, Khaled Meshaal, it hosts. And Syria has sought to destabilise Iraq, to better bargain with Baghdad.

However, Syria comes a distant third in the influence race with Iran and Turkey. Mr Assad can play each off the other, for a time, but he has little ability to take steps that bring him in conflict with either. Gone are the days when a Syrian leader could employ Turkish Kurds against Ankara or rouse popular Syrian anger against Turkey’s incorporation of Alexandretta. Iran and Turkey draw much more advantage from Syria than Syria will draw from them.

As Turkey and Iran seek greater sway over the Arab world, they still must deal with Israel, the third non-Arab actor in the Middle East. Israel is isolated and has no real vision when it comes to the Palestinians. But we should not overstate Israel’s troubles. Turkey will hesitate before fully breaking ties with the Israelis. That is not how triumvirates work. Israel and Turkey can be useful to one another against Iran.

It is funny how little the Arabs are shaping this intricate trigonometry. They are too busy serving as playthings to those all around them to see what is going on.


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