Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Neo-Ottomans discover new Middle East

By M K Bhadrakumar

To emphasize commonalities and to marginalize differences is the overall drift of diplomacy in inter-state relationships. But there could also be extraordinary times when good diplomacy needs to accentuate differences in a relationship characterized by growing commonalities.

Turkish diplomacy focused during the recent years on building up "zero-problem" relationships with Iran and Syria. But even as stunning results have begun appearing, a need has arisen for Ankara to mark a certain distance from its neighbors. The Arab revolt threatens to bring to the surface new templates of regional rivalry.

The Middle East was the arena where the Ottoman-Safavid rivalry played out for over half a millennia all the way up to the beginning of the 20th century. The prospect of the birth of a New Middle East finds the two regional powers jockeying for leadership. Arguably, there are third parties - Western powers on the whole and some among Arabs - who may actually hope to gain out from a replay of the historical rivalry in the contemporary regional setting, which by common reckoning is working to the advantage of Iran's rise.

Unfinished business in Gaza
The alacrity with which Turkey filed a report to the United Nations in New York regarding its seizure of a cache of weapons from a transiting Iranian aircraft en route to Syria on March 21 and the attendant media "leaks" - all this happening in a fast-forward mode within the week - underscores an interplay of regional rivalries.

Indeed, Turkey acted as a responsible member of the international community when it apprehended the Iranian aircraft violating the United Nations Security Council sanctions against Iran - although the "prohibited military items" ferried across to Aleppo in Syria consisted of just 60 Kalashnikov rifles, 14 machine guns, 8,000 rounds of ammunition and 2,000 mortar shells.

What matters is that Colombia, which is a staunch ally of the United States and heads the Iran sanctions committee, promptly told the Security Council that the incident is a "matter of serious concern" and Western diplomats rushed to comment that the episode "reflected positively on Turkey".

An element of discord has indeed appeared in Turkish-Iranian-Syrian ties, which had been on a steady upward curve. The issue also likely involves Hezbollah and (or) Hamas, and we may not have heard the last word. Yesterday, former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert said ominously that an all-out war against the Gaza Strip is inevitable.

To quote Olmert, "If there's one thing I regret - it's that we didn't finish the job back then - we cannot avoid the need to complete the job. Israel cannot accept the presence of a terror entity in Gaza, which threatens the citizens of Israel, without taking action. Not random action, but controlled, precise and organized action with enough force to bring a change to the reality in Gaza."

Turks are some of the oldest practitioners of modern diplomacy. They know tensions are building up in Syria, and Ankara has taken a prescriptive approach toward Damascus by openly and repeatedly calling on President Bashar Assad to reform. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke to Assad twice. President Abdullah Gul reiterated Turkey's call for reforms within a day of Assad's address on Wednesday where he said the Syrian protests were the result of a "foreign plot".

Gul used uncharacteristically strong language: "Whatever needs [to be done] should be done. There can be no closed regime on the Mediterranean coast. Assad is aware of this, too ... We are sharing our experiences with him and we do not want chaos in Syria." Gul's adviser Ersat Hurmuzlu demanded: "Waiting for the protests to end to make reforms is a wrong approach. Necessary reforms should be made now, not later. Leaders should be brave ... It would be an easy transformation if the Syrian administration can make significant reforms on human rights and democracy and find solutions in the struggle against corruption."

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told Reuters: "It is like Eastern Europe in the late 1990s ... Those who try to prevent this process will face more difficulties like in Libya ... We don't have any evidence [of a "foreign plot"] ... We're supporting reforms and democratization [in Syria] but it should be a peaceful transformation, not through violence, attacks against civilians or by trying to keep the status quo or by creating instability."

Marked shift in attitudes
The sudden Turkish belligerence toward Syria has a complex backdrop. No Arab state was more anti-Turkish than Ba'athist Syria. In the Syrian folklore, Ottomans are cast as villains, and just below the surface lies a territorial dispute dating back to 1939 when Turks annexed Hatay province from Syria. This is also where the hidden meaning of the Turkish seizure of Iranian aircraft carrying weapons en route to Syria probably lies.

Again, Turkey has been reaching out to Hezbollah and Hamas, bypassing Syria's (and Iran's) claim to be their interlocutor, in an effort to enhance its regional credentials and burnish its standing with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.

The GCC states, on their part, regard it a good thing that Ankara is willing to shoot across Tehran's bow. Unlike the case with Iran, whose objectives vis-a-vis Hezbollah and Hamas are viewed in zero-sum terms by Saudi Arabia, Turkey's efforts to advance its political status are not perceived as aimed at threatening or marginalizing Riyadh's interests.

Therefore, the visit by the Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal to Ankara last week assumes great significance. The Saudis have been apprehensive about the flowering of Turkish-Iranian ties. Riyadh is deeply concerned that Tehran may turn out to be the real beneficiary of the current turmoil in the Middle East.

The Saudis see that only Turkey can act as a counterweight to Iran in the emergent scenario where Egypt is in a shambles and US regional policies are in disarray. But at the same time, Saudis were disenchanted that Erdogan's ebullient "Third Worldism" was becoming too radical whereas in the end everything in the New Middle East ought to come down to sectarianism - Turkey is Sunni (and Salafi), so is Saudi Arabia, but Iran is Shi'ite.

Conceivably, Faisal reminded the Turkish leadership - Gul lived in Jeddah for eight years and knows how the Saudi mind works - that amidst the euphoria of the Arab revolt for democratization, it shouldn't be forgotten that, at the end of the day, through the Ottoman era Arabs preferred Sublime Porte (the open court of the sultan) to Persian hegemony. But Turkey doesn't need to be particularly reminded of that. The Ottomans had a thorough grasp of sectarianism in the Muslim Middle East and they played up confessional differences, encouraged sectarianism and propped up minorities with great skill and aplomb. Anyway, there has been a marked shift in the Turkish attitudes since Faisal flew back home from Ankara.

A bullish, proactive mood
Turkey seems to weigh in that with the dramatic decline in the US' influence and profile, the Middle East is returning to its historical divides and there is a flock waiting to be led despite Iran's manifest desire to surge. Turkey also factors in that the returns for carrying the burden of leadership in the oil-rich Persian Gulf region promise to be fabulous - wealth, influence, power and glory. At its most audacious level, Turkey can even aspire to be an intermediary between its Arab "wards" and the West, which has been ignoring it.

Thus, while on the one hand, Ankara has brazenly intruded into the Iran-Syrian alliance and is dictating to Damascus to come back into the Sunni Arab fold (which the Alawaite regime cannot easily do), on the other hand, Davutoglu is heading for Manama next week to "see the situation on the ground" and follow up on the consultations he has had with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have been alleging an Iranian hand behind the Shi'ite uprising in Bahrain.

Davutoglu said, "An escalation of tension in Bahrain may create an escalation of tension in the Gulf." In sharp contrast with the Iranian stance, Turkey does not object to the Saudi intervention in Bahrain. (Initially it did, but no longer.)

Turkey also appreciates that the GCC is funding Bahrain to help it carry out reforms. Turkey feels that the GCC (read Saudi Arabia) should solve the problems within its region. As Hurmuzlu put it, "They [GCC states] should not seek solutions outside the region by delegating to powerful countries as sub-contractors."

Davutoglu faces a tough challenge to navigate between the Saudi and Iranian interests in Bahrain. It is highly unlikely that Tehran will be pleased with the sight of the Turkish diplomat wading into its Shi'ite backyard.

Again, the Turkish position on the situation in Yemen ("quite critical") is close to Saudi Arabia's and diverges from Iran's. Turkey agrees with Saudi Arabia that the priority should be to keep Yemen united and to avoid sectarian conflict. Turkey is only guardedly supportive of change of leadership in Yemen.

How realistic are Turkey's neo-Ottoman ambitions? The hard reality is that despite sustained efforts Turkey is far from becoming a dominant factor in the Middle East. On the contrary, Turkey's proactive mode might end up generating anxiety in the region that it is intervening in intra-Arab politics.

However, Turkey is in a bullish mood. Its economy grew by 8.9% in 2010 and its gross domestic product per capita has just burst through the magical US$10,000 threshold. And it is convinced of its credentials as a shining example of democracy for Muslim nations anywhere.

But Turks don't care to look at life from others' perspective. In the Arab memory, Ottoman legacy consists in a mere clutch of habits that Turks left behind and nothing more - coffee and waterpipes, or baksheesh (bribery) and the khazouk (a crude metal spike used by Ottomans to torture Arab subjects).

Turkey's Sunni Arab co-religionists resent the Ottoman era. No one speaks Turkish in the Arab world and everyone is keen to learn English or French. Simply put, there is a mountain load to forget in half a millennium of history. Erdogan is a regional celebrity, but then it is largely a matter of the sultan's personal charisma.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

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