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June 19, 2012, Tuesday

Turkey is the only certainty in a region of uncertainties

With the Arab Spring fading under the “Egyptian Twilight,” which now seems overshadowed by the butchery taking place in Syria, what the future holds for the entire Middle East region is essentially a guessing game.

The process of change, which the Arab unrest had promised, has now swung in favor of a tutelary regime after the deadly U-turn in Cairo and may soon be very difficult to contain. It may lead to many unexpected and feared consequences: bloodshed, a new wave of domestic terror, an increasing al-Qaeda presence, radicalization of the Muslim Brotherhood movements, an escalation of sympathy for Salafis, collapse of local administrations and new militarist orders.

A tour d’horizon of the entire zone stretching from Maghreb to Mashriq these days offers nothing but gloom. This was inevitable in an off-the-record meeting in Switzerland about the Arab Spring -- a loose-ended and vivid brainstorming of sorts -- with high-level experts in the field. The effects of the multi-polarity or the so-called “emerging new order” are seen more clearly with the additional element that the eastern Mediterranean along with Cyprus are also at the center of seismic moves.

Paradoxically, the most puzzling player in the eyes of the analysts at the meeting seems to be Turkey, I noted at the meeting. They chuckled and shrugged, underestimating Turkey’s intentions and global objectives and somehow ignored its long-term impact on regional policies.

Their criticism of Turkey’s regional foreign policy was loud but narrow. It often focused on its failure in the deterrence of Syria and what they saw as the negative impact of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s words on the Muslim Brotherhood while he was in Egypt on the essentiality of secularism in democracy. No, Turks were not regarded as defining actors, nor were they taken as models in the Arab Spring process, they argued. But they had no data to offer when challenged, no surveys, no other base on which to build their arguments on.

Yet, all in all, two critical points made sense. The first was Ankara’s choice to emerge as the defender of Sunni-based interests much more than any others, and the second had to do with the weakening effect of Turkey’s role as the player which carries weight and is at an equal “distance” to all others in the region.

There were two points that might help to explain the perceptions I mentioned so that they can be taken seriously. These are the issues for Ankara as the choreographers of Turkey’s foreign policy, and they will need to revisit the “Davutoğlu doctrine” for necessary adjustments.

There were also some third voices in the two-day meeting that sounded in agreement with the Davutoğlu doctrine. In a broader perspective, it looks like this: The US, plagued by intervention fatigue in foreign lands, is not at all interested in a repeat of the Libya situation in Syria, at least not until after the elections. Depending on whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney is elected, this could change as early as next year. Meanwhile, Russia is keen to reassert its Cold War-like presence in the region, not only through Syria, but also Cyprus.

Nobody really knows how Romney would deal with Iran, if elected. But it is known that Benjamin Netanyahu is an old friend, and that will play a key role in the decision-making process. A strong guess is that he may choose Eric Edelman, a former US ambassador in Ankara, in the post that deals with Turkey. Given how much negativity there is in the Justice and Development Party (AKP) perception of Edelman, this may prove to be a challenge in relations.

Recent Israel-Greece, Israel-Cyprus and Cyprus-Lebanon moves are also points of serious concern for the US because it may easily drag Turkey into a nasty military conflict in the eastern Mediterranean. Although Washington resents the fact that Israel refuses to apologize for the Mavi Marmara incident and finds that refusal infantile, it also finds the escalation in Ankara’s rhetoric regarding the eastern Mediterranean immature and rather illegitimate.

The worst outcome of Turkey’s aggressive discourse is the fact that it managed to cement unity between the Armenian, Greek and Jewish lobbies in Washington. How it will play out into the otherwise fine Turkish-American relations after November is yet to be seen. Everybody in the meeting agreed that the “Arab Twilight” and the region had far too many unknowns. It increases dangers.

But there is one certainty, without which the process of the Arab Spring cannot be managed in Turkey: Given the circumstances, Erdoğan and the AKP will rule Turkey for another decade, at least. This will help with the long-term planning of matters related to the Arab Spring. Therefore it is crucial that Israel take the mature step of issuing an apology, accept that Turkey’s stability is vital for its interests, and at the end of the day be helpful in building a region of stability. It is never too late.

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