Fawaz A. Gerges -- professor of Middle Eastern politics and international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science and leading expert on the Middle East -- has singled out Turkey, with its functioning democracy and growing economic power, as the only regional example for Arab Spring countries.
He labeled Iran “a failed model” in that respect.
Gerges maintained that the Middle East has witnessed changing dynamics and the rise of new regional powers while “the US is experiencing the beginning of the end of its dominance in the region as a result of massive strategic miscalculations,” during an exclusive interview with Today’s Zaman last Friday.
Leading expert on the Middle East Fawaz A. Gerges explains that Turkey is a significant regional player because of its democratic model and the attention it has paid to the aspirations of people in the Middle East during recent uprisings against dictators. Gerges also notes that Turkey is ‘between a rock and a hard place,’ not being able to convince Assad to quell violence along Turkish borders with diplomacy
Gerges claimed that Turkey is a significant regional player because of its democratic model and the attention it has paid to the aspirations of people in the Middle East during recent uprisings against dictators. With this in mind, he said that Turkey is the only country that can serve as an example for the region. Iran, another regional power, is losing credibility due to its failure “to build an open [democratic] society and a functioning economy.” He also mentioned its sustained friendly relations with the tyrannical regime of President Bashar al-Assad, despite the regime’s massive one-year-long attacks on the Syrian opposition.
Gerges asserted that Turkey has gained appreciation from the US and European allies due to its balanced position in the Middle East and abstention from taking sides in regional conflicts -- predominantly based on Shiite-Sunni clashes -- taking place from Iraq to Saudi Arabia.
Regarding the conflict in Syria, Gerges claimed that Turkey is “between a rock and a hard place,” not being able to convince Assad to quell violence along Turkish borders with diplomacy. Gerges noted that Turkey will hit a rock, so to speak, if it allows the killings to continue -- they are the reason that Turkey has about 14,000 Syrian refugees. On the other hand, Turkey will hit a hard place if it decides to enforce a buffer zone, which would require a military intervention. As a buffer zone seems to be necessary, this will have major strategic implications for Turkey’s relations not only with Syria but in the whole region. Once you decide to intervene militarily, it will change the entire dynamics, Gerges explained.
Gerges ruled out a military intervention in Syria as a plausible way out of the crisis, claiming that this would bring other actors such as Iran, the Hezbollah terrorist organization and Russia -- the backers of Assad -- into the scene, to lend military support to the Syrian regime, potentially causing a regional war. Gerges added that military intervention would be disastrous for Syria because of the likelihood that it would plunge the country into all-out civil war.
Touching upon the threat of militant groups, which are active in some countries in the Middle East, like Somalia and Yemen, Gerges said that if the conflicts in Syria turn into an all-out civil war, it could become a base for al-Qaeda, as has been the case in Iraq since the 2004 American invasion.
Gerges also claimed that the Israeli depiction of the Iranian nuclear enrichment program as a threat to regional stability is hypocritical; Israel wants to direct attention from its stalled Middle East peace process by bringing attention to Iran.
Your latest book, “Obama and the Middle East: The End of America’s Moment,” to be published in May, is about the US withdrawal from the Middle East. The book claims that regional actors like Turkey will have more influence in the region, given this development. Can you explain this further?
In the book my major argument is that the US is witnessing the beginning of the end of its dominance in the region as a result of massive strategic miscalculations. In particular, the war on terror, the invasion of Iraq, the abuse of its power and the lack of leadership on the Palestine question. All these factors prepared for the decline of the US vis-à-vis other great powers like China, India and others.
Also, Obama himself has shifted the focus from the Middle East to the Pacific Ocean; he believes that future of the US lies in the Pacific with China, South Korea, Australia, etc. Its priorities are being shifted. All these factors tell me that we might be witnessing, like the sub-title of my book, the beginning of the end of America’s moment. Even though it will take 10 years or so, we have to see beyond the fog and try to understand what will happen in the next 10 or 20 years.
While, as you said, the US is withdrawing from the region, how do you assess the positions of countries like Turkey and Iran in the next 10 or 20 years?
The big point I want to make is that Turkey, the Turkish example and the Turkish model have emerged as one of the significant players in the Middle East; there is no doubt about that. Turkey is one of the rising geo-strategic and geo-economic powers in the world, not just in the Middle East.
My second point is that Turkey has become very much interested in its neighborhood in the last 10 years and has become very active. And both Europe and the US are extremely pleased that Turkey is now serving a positive role. Because the truth is that, in the Middle East, the only model that exists is Turkey.
Iran is a failed model. Israel is not a model at all, because Israel is occupying another Arab state that is Palestine. People in the region are really fascinated with Turkey. They look at Turkey as an example, if not as a model, because you cannot just export models. So, Turkey has really emerged not only as a geostrategic and geo-economic power internationally, but also in the region itself. It has played a major role in Libya. It has embraced the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan went on a tour from Egypt to Libya and Tunisia; he has offered Turkish help.
Iran has major problems internally. I am not talking about relations between Iran and Western powers. Iran has failed to build an open society and a functioning economy; that means Iran has a long way to go. Iran is deeply fragmented, and the basic fragmentation is between the presidency and supreme leader. Iran faces major problems; that suggests that Iran does not have the capacity of becoming a geo-strategic power like Turkey unless it resolves its important problems and it builds a different type of society.
If the transitions in the Arab world take place in the next 10 or 20 years, I can see Egypt as another emerging power -- of course not on the same scale as Turkey, because it can take of a longer time period, because of its problems and challenges.
How do you assess Turkey’s stance vis-à-vis the sectarian conflicts in the region? Do you see Turkey as an impartial and balanced actor with regards to those conflicts?
There is a sectarian ideological mobilization in the region that Turkey is not responsible for.
Prime Minister Erdoğan went to Egypt and thousands of Islamists came and welcomed him. They expected him to say, “Yes, political Islam is the solution.” But the prime minister told Egyptians in a prime TV interview, “Your only way out is to establish a secular constitution.” That is a testament to the fact that Turkish foreign policy not only plays the sectarian card, but also not the Islamist card.
This speech was eye-opening. Even the Obama administration and American foreign policy circles were very pleased because they realized Turkey is a pivotal state. When the prime minister gave a speech in the most populous Arab state, Egypt, that you must establish a secular constitution, this message resonates a great deal, and many Islamists criticized that the Turkish prime minister even mentioned the word “secular” constitution.
Militant Islam and al-Qaeda have tightened their grip and have some sort of control in those countries. How do you assess these developments?
There are some places like in Somalia, Iraq, Yemen and Pakistani tribal areas where local al-Qaeda branches exist. But these are local branches; they are really few.
But if Syria descends into all-out sectarian strife, I can easily imagine Syria becoming a base for al-Qaeda, like Iraq became between 2003 and the present. In fact, if the Syrian crisis intensifies, I can see more and more fighters and militants migrate into Syria, from Iraq, from Lebanon, from other places. This could have tremendous implications, not only for Syria, but even for its neighbors as well.
‘Establishing a buffer zone in Syria would expose Turkey to many risks’
In what ways could the Syrian conflict affect Turkey’s position in the Middle East?
The Syrian crisis has really exposed how vulnerable Turkey is. Turkey is very much interested in trying to help and assist Middle Eastern states and create economic and political links. On the one hand, Turkey has embraced the aspirations of the Syrian people, the uprising. On the other hand, the killing continues.
The crisis has left Turkey stuck between a rock and a hard place: the rock, if it allows the killings to continue. You will have a huge refugee crisis; you have already had about 14,000 Syrian refugees. If Syria descends into all-out sectarian strife, this will really have implications for peace and stability in Turkey itself, because it has one of the longest borders with Syria. A hard place, because if Turkey decides to enforce a buffer zone, as seems to be the case, this will have major strategic implications for Turkey’s relations not only with Syria but in the region itself. Because once you decide to intervene militarily, it will change the entire dynamics.
Once you decide to intervene militarily, nobody is able to guess what is going to happen. That’s why Syria represents a major challenge for Turkey. It is a challenge in terms of foreign policy, in terms of strategic interest and in terms of Turkey’s role in the region. It would be a lose-lose situation. If Turkey does not do anything about the escalating crisis, this will probably hurt Turkey, particularly in terms of refugees and in terms of the future escalation of the Syrian crisis. If Turkey decides to intervene militarily and enforce a buffer zone, nobody knows how the situation will escalate. That is why it is a very difficult decision. If I were a Turkish leader today, I would think that this is a major challenge that requires wisdom, a great deal of reflection and patience as well.
Do you think outside military intervention, as an international initiative, would be useful for quelling the violence in Syria?
First of all, I think a military intervention would be disastrous for Syria because it would most likely plunge Syria into all-out war. A military intervention will play into Assad’s hands; it will change the current situation from a popular uprising to a civil war. A military intervention will probably bring Iran and Hezbollah into the conflict. Russia also made it very clear that it will support Assad.
So, any military intervention is likely to change the conflict from a popular uprising into a region-wide conflict. This is the risk posed by a military intervention. That is why the US and European powers have not only been opposed to military intervention; they have even been opposed to arming the Syrian people. The US and even France think that arming the rebels will basically turn the conflict into an all-out war.
Yet, at the same time, I take your point when you say “What should we do about the killing?” and “How do you stop the killing?” I think we have to wait and see whether Kofi Annan’s mission is successful. This mission is the only light at the end of the tunnel.
There is also a rift between Turkey and Iran. The two are trying to extend their influence in the region and one of the flashpoints is Syria. Turkey is calling for Assad to go, while Iran is supporting him unconditionally.
What we have seen as a result of the Syrian crisis is that Turkey and Iran don’t see eye-to-eye; in fact, there is an implicit rivalry between Iran and Turkey over Syria. And Turkey is very critical of the Iranian position on Syria, because Turkey feels that Iran does not take into account the aspirations of Syrian people, and I quietly agree. We will see a lot of tensions between Turkey and Iran over Syria and this shows clearly how the Syrian crisis has now complicated the regional dynamics and Turkey’s relations with Iran, even though -- to its credit -- Turkish foreign policy still opposes any Western military action or Israeli attack on Iran. Turkey’s diplomatic position is still only a settlement with Iran, which could really help regional stability and peace. But the reality is the Turkish-Iranian relationship is very strained and it is coming under tremendous pressure.
‘Israel wants to divert attention from the Palestinian issue, warmongering on Iran’
If Israel attacks Iran, what kind of a fate would await Palestine and the Middle East peace process?
If Israel or the US attack Iran, this would have tremendous implications; not just for the relationship between Iran and the Western powers, but also the Arab-Israeli conflict. This would become a region-wide conflict. Hezbollah will basically join the armed conflict, and that is exactly what Netanyahu wants.
Netanyahu wants to divert attention from his occupation of Palestinian land and focus on Iran. Initially, during the first year [of his US Presidency] Barack Obama told Netanyahu very clearly that the focus should be on Palestine, not on Iran’s nuclear weapons. Three years later, in the most recent meeting between Netanyahu and Obama, the US president hardly mentioned Palestine. This says a great deal about how American foreign policy, even under an intelligent and decent president, has not been able to introduce any changes to the Palestine-Israel conflict.
But if Netanyahu deludes himself into believing that somehow the new political forces in the Middle East [following the Arab revolutions] will not prioritize the Palestine question, he is in a wonderland; he is dreaming.