If Islamist movements take power in major Arab states, we could witness the emergence of a Sunni Middle Eastern bloc dominated by Turkey – a strong Muslim revisionist state at the edge of Europe with aspirations to extend its influence toward the West.
Indeed, in the aftermath of his comfortable election on June 12, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan boastfully made an Islamist and Ottoman-tinted declaration: “Believe me, Sarajevo won today as much as Istanbul, Beirut won as much as Izmir, Damascus won as much as Ankara, Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, the West Bank, Jerusalem won as much as Diyarbakir.”
According to this scenario, the Sunni bloc led by Turkey will sooner or later challenge the Shi’ite regime in Iran, and will probably try to expand its influence among the Sunni majority in Syria and the Sunni community in Lebanon.
Until lately, Iran seemed to be the great winner of the Arab uprisings. Its leaders considered events in Tunisia and Egypt an anti- American movement playing to their advantage. The daily Keyhan predicted that the fall of Mubarak’s regime would deal a major blow to the regional status of the US, while Iran’s status would likely strengthen. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared that “a Mideast without Israel and America is now possible.”
However, some voices warned that the improvement of Turkey’s status may come at Iran’s expense. The latter’s Donyaye Eqtesad daily noted that the long-standing relations between the two countries were not based solely on friendship, but also on rivalry, and that, paradoxically, “the rise of Islam only further intensified the competition between the two countries.”
The confiscation of suspected cargo on Iranian planes flying in Turkey’s air space and Turkey’s request that Iran stay away from the Bahraini uprising were seen by Iranian diplomatic analysts as a new chapter in Iran- Turkey relations. The above scenario is indeed possible, but we could witness other surprising changes.
AT THE beginning of the uprising in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood promised not to run a candidate in the presidential elections, and present candidates for only 30 percent of the parliamentary places. Nevertheless, since their victory in last March’s referendum, the Brotherhood has decided to form the Freedom and Justice Party, to run for 50% of the places in parliament in alliance with the old Wafd liberal party, and even present a candidate for the presidency, albeit one who claims to be independent.
A major victory by the Brotherhood in the September Egyptian elections could convince it to work for the revival of Egypt’s regional hegemony, to become itself the Islamist leader of the Sunni Arab world, and not accept Turkish patronage and the neo- Ottoman vision of the AKP.
Moreover, paradoxically, Turkish and Iranian regional hegemonic aspirations are both threatened by the drama unfolding in Syria.
If at the beginning of the uprising in Egypt, Erdogan met Syrian dictator Bashar Assad to coordinate “efforts regarding unrest in Egypt, so as to spare the people from any more suffering,” he quickly became worried by the possible side effects of the bloody events in Syria.
Preventing that country’s descent into civil war is of utmost importance for Turkey’s own security. Erdogan even views Syria as a “domestic issue,” and prefers an orderly transition to a democratic regime under Assad. He has slammed Assad’s younger brother, Maher, the mastermind behind the violent crackdown on protesters.
Turkey also helped organize the Syrian opposition by permitting it to coordinate its activity during the “Change in Syria” conference in Antalya (significantly without participation of Syrian Kurdish representatives) and letting Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leaders speak from its territory. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu declared that Turkey would simultaneously maintain “ties of trust” with the Syrian administration and “ties of love” with the Syrian people, testifying to the desire to become a power broker in the broader Levant.
But Turkey’s main security worry is that chaos in northwest Syria could allow Kurdish militants to use the region as a base against it. Local AKP officials warned that any post-election failure to address Kurdish concerns could put Turkey’s long-term political stability at risk. An anti-Turkey backlash is now under way in Syria, with state-controlled media accusing Ankara of trying to resurrect the Ottoman Empire. A Syrian official in Damascus claimed that “the West wants to put the region under Turkish control like in the Ottoman days.”
ASSAD IS signaling to Ankara that this is a game both can play. He announced amnesty for Kurdish separatist activists, and has invited representatives of 12 Kurdish parties, including the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), to visit him in Damascus. The Kurds hope to present a proposal on the establishment of a Kurdish autonomous region.
But even if, as it seems, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood becomes the political power broker after the fall of Assad’s Alawite regime, with the passive support of the Turkish Islamist AKP, it could be a less accommodating partner. First, it will probably seek to embrace its brothers in a regional Arab Islamist coalition; second, it could seek the return of the Alexandretta (Hatay) territory granted to Turkey in 1939 by France (Syria’s former colonizer). Since 2005, in the framework of his excellent relations with Ankara, Assad has decided to “put off for coming generations” the dream of Syrian Alexandretta.
Syria is Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world. Significantly, the Iranian state media and Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV station are censoring the anti-regime unrest in Syria. Former Iranian ambassador to Lebanon Muhammad Irani assessed that the Syrian unrest could have a negative impact on the Tehran-Damascus axis.
It is interesting to note that demonstrators in the streets of Syrian cities have burned Iranian and Hezbollah flags and accused them of supporting, training and even participating directly in the repressive actions of the Syrian army. This will surely influence Syria’s future relationships with these two parties.
The forthcoming decision of the International Tribunal, which probably will indict Hezbollah leaders in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, could rapidly change the tone in the Lebanese arena, weaken Hezbollah, dismantle the recently formed pro-Syrian government and possibly fuel a conflict between Shi’ites and Sunnis.
THE OTHER major regional issue, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, will come to a head this September when the UN General Assembly will probably decide to recognize a Palestinian state within the 1967 lines. The new Palestinian strategy involves the massive use of “soft power” and non-violent demonstrations. However, as witnessed during this month’s and last month’s attempts to revive the Palestinian refugee problem by trying to physically penetrate Israel’s borders, the situation could deteriorate, with leaders in Cairo and Damascus under pressure to support their brethren. The Syrian regime has already manipulated events to distract international public attention from its bloody military repression.
But the UN recognition of a Palestinian state could have much broader worldwide consequences. Other minorities in the Middle East and beyond – Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iran; Balouchis in Iran and Pakistan; peoples of the Caucasus; Tibetans and Uyghurs in China; Kashmiris in India – who have fought for independence or autonomy for decades, and in many cases represent populations much more numerous than the Palestinians, could decide to intensify their struggle.
The most immediate impact will be on the Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iraq. The AKP government has not solved the Kurdish problem.
An analysis of the Turkish election results published on the PKK’s website stresses that the most fundamental problem is the Kurdish issue, and the AKP received the support of all the powers in the country by promising to eliminate the Kurdistan Freedom Movement. However, claim the authors, the election has proven that the AKP has been defeated in Kurdistan, despite the arrest of hundreds of politicians. The most important political result of this election has been the Kurdish people’s determination to solve the Kurdish issue based on democratic autonomy.
Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned Kurdish PKK leader, threatened that after June 15, “either there will be an historic agreement, or an all out war will develop and it will lead to chaos and turmoil. A wholesale people’s war may develop.”
If a people’s war develops, it may even result in a civil war. According to a recent analysis by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the vast majority of Iraqi Kurds believe that if the US military presence is not extended, “a major Kurdish-Arab conflict will be inevitable.”
If relations between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government falter, it claims, “Iraq may devolve into another Arab state at war with its ethnic minorities.
The situation is also tense in Baluchistan, on the Iranian and Pakistani part of the border. Indian analyst B. Raman notes that despite brutal suppression in Pakistan, Baloch organizations calling for greater autonomy have managed to maintain their freedom struggle. The Baloch independence struggle in Pakistan could have adverse consequences for Iran in its Baloch areas and for China in its Xinjiang province, claims Raman.
Palestinian success at the UN could have “collateral political damage” for some of the regional and international actors working in favor of the UN resolution.
Overall, the events of the past weeks in the Middle East have proven that the “Arab Spring” is leading to a stormy summer and possibly a long, frosty winter, full of old and new threats.