Peace in the Middle East is just as unlikely as it popular; that is to say, very unlikely and very popular. Israel continues to build settlements on Palestinian land, Saudi Arabia is rooting for the collapse of Iran, and Turkey is creating water crises while Hamas and Hezbollah continue to pose problems for Israel, Lebanon and Palestine. All the meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are now infatuated with one another, Turkey and Lebanon are becoming friends, Syria and Lebanon are reconciling and Syria and Iran are creating a new world order. Aside from reaffirming the unpredictability of the region, recent shifts in the foreign policies of many of the Middle Eastern nations create a very blurry picture of what a future Middle East will look like. With Syria, Iran and Turkey all seemingly pushing for role of regional hegemon, the Middle East will have a very different face in the future.
Turkey has thrust its way into the center of the Middle East by cooperation with its neighbors and a rejection of what it sees as counterproductive and
immoral Israeli behavior. Turkey’s resurgence in popularity with its neighbors might have begun one year ago when PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan ripped on Israeli President Shimon Peres over the conduct of the IDF during the siege of Gaza in which nearly 1500 Palestinians were killed. Turkey’s popularity has continued to increase with rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, Syria and Lebanon as well as remaining one of the neutral countries in the conflict surrounding Iran. In addition to lifting visa restrictions with Syria and, more recently, Lebanon, Turkey has agreed to host the staged uranium swap with Iran in an attempt to pacify the nuclear crisis brewing in the Persian country and moderate any peace talks between Syria and Israel.
Most of Turkey’s recent actions seem to be centered on peace and stability in the region. It is a avid supporter of creating a Israeli-Palestinian peace as well as a supporter of Palestinian and Arab reconciliation. Yet, it cannot be forgotten that Turkey’s popularity, despite its calls for peace with Israel, was catalyzed by its rejection of Israel. This same ability to speak out against Israel has maintained respect for Turkey across the Middle East, but it might also damage Turkey’s ability to truly provide regional leadership. As a member of NATO, a valued ally of the west (although it is getting the cold shoulder from Europe) and, until the Gaza war, Israel’s closest Muslim ally, Turkey was viewed as the country that had the best potential to lead the Middle East.
Recently, Turkey has criticized Israel for violating Lebanese airspace and has been involved in a growing diplomatic spat with Israel. If tensions between Turkey and Israel continue to mount, it is possible that Turkey will lose its ability to moderate between Israel and other Middle Eastern countries. For now, however, Turkey has a foreign policy that emphasizes peace in the region, opposes nuclear proliferation and requires fair treatment of Palestinians by Israel.
“The situation in Iran is not good, is not compatible with our vision,” Davutoglu said. “We don’t want nuclear proliferation in the region, we don’t want nuclear weapons in Iran or Israel or anywhere. Second, every country has the right to pursue nuclear power for peaceful purposes. Third, we also don’t want more sanctions [on Iran]. Sanctions hurt ordinary people and neighbouring countries.
“We don’t forget the very bad experience in Iraq. We would advise intensified negotiations through diplomacy. An absence of mutual trust is the problem.” If asked, Turkey would be happy to facilitate a constructive dialogue with Iran, he said.
Davutoglu reserved his sharpest words for Israel, with which Turkey, unusually, has enjoyed cordial relations in the past but with which Erdogan fell out noisily after last year’s attack on Gaza. Verbal hostilities resumed this week after the Turkish prime minister called Israel a threat to peace and accused it of acting disproportionately. Israel hit back angrily, in effect telling Erdogan to mind his own business.
“When Israel follows a policy of peace, we have good relations,” Davutoglu said. Before Gaza, Turkey had mediated indirect talks between Syria and Israel and made “remarkable” progress, he said. But the Israeli incursion had scuppered the talks. “That attack changed many things … It created a very unstable situation in the region” that even Barack Obama had been unable to overcome. Since then, there had been further “provocations” such as additional Jewish settlement building in east Jerusalem.
“If Israel wants peace, they must learn that others have rights that must be respected,” he said. Davutoglu pauses and smiles. But it’s clear that when it comes to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, there are limits to even his highly developed sense of good-neighbourliness.
Although Iran receives nothing but bad press in the west, it is entirely possible that if the Iranian regime can escape unscathed from the ‘Green Revolution’ it can become a serious regional leader (unhelpfully, outspoken US senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman – who have already prematurely dictated American policy to Israel – have declared that the protests in Iran will lead to the end of the regime). Iran has had very consistent view of the Middle East for years; the Persian state remains close with Syria, amicable with Turkey and intricately involved with Hamas, Hezbollah and, allegedly, the Houthi rebellion (in Gaza, Lebanon and Yemen respectively). It views Israel as illegitimate and is constantly butting heads with Saudi Arabia, a country that Iran views as having a corrupt puppet regime. Most recently, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met with the Syrian speaker of Parliament Mahmoud al-Abrash to discuss the two countries’ view of the future. Ahmadinejad said that “Iran and Syria have a joint mission to create a new world order on the basis of justice, humanity and belief in God.”
Naturally, the meeting between Ahmadinejad and al-Abrash did little to clarify the true vision of Iran. What must be taken into account, more so that Iran’s relationships with veritable states, is its relationship and support for non-state actors in the region. The power of Hezbollah, which is greatly derived from Iran, creates a very unstable situation in Lebanon as well as a true threat to Israel. Similarly, the democratically elected Hamas has funds and arms provided by Iran, creating a untenable situation for Palestine and Israel while Iranian support of the Houthi rebellion is destabilizing for Yemen. The three non-state actors supported by Iran are a way to spread the anti-west, anti-Israel view of Iran. Unfortunately, without a change in Iranian policy, conflict between Iran and the west seems inevitable; the US is already planning on implementing sanctions against the regime while increasing its rhetoric concerning military action. It is highly unlikely that Iran (without a change in leadership) will reverse its current viewpoints on the west and Israel; rather, as a regional power, Iran would continue to sow unrest in west-friendly countries and oppose peace with Israel.
Syria’s recent foreign policy strategy has been focused on bringing Syria back into the international fold, mostly due to the bleak economic situation in the country. Historically, Syria’s relations with other states have not been consistent. Relations with other Arab nations were strained due to accusations of Syrian misconduct in Lebanon while Syria has been on the US list of states that sponsor terrorism. Relations with the west were strained further due to rumors of nuclear activity in the country and Syria’s intense opposition to the war in Iraq. Recently, however, Syria has been reconciling
with many; as mentioned, Syria and Turkey have lifted visa restrictions and seen a jump in economic trade; President Bashar Assad continues his cooperation with the Iranian regime (surprisingly without much anger from the west); and the US has flirted with reestablishing diplomatic relations with Syria. With the renaissance of Syria as an integrated regional power with decent relations to the west, the country’s role in the future of the Middle East remains cloudy.
On the one hand, Assad’s refusal of a Saudi style rejection of Iran and its support of Hezbollah and Hamas as well as its tacit permission to foreign fighters to use its border as an entrance into Iraq suggest that a future Syria will follow Iran. That is, continue an anti-American and anti-Israel centered foreign policy. However, despite its ties with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, there have been signs indicating a wavering Syrian dedication to this future. Recent rumors have Syria contemplating peace with Israel and President Assad has reached out to the US, calling for a larger US role in the Middle East. Regionally, Syria has mended ties with Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.
Syria’s main goals in the region certainly involve being a continued influence in Lebanon, the return of Golan Heights from Israel and a strengthening of its weak economy. While it is unlikely that Syria will cut its ties with Iran – as Tehran’s military gives Assad assurance against Israel, Syria’s foreign policy is likely to surround the completion of the abovementioned goals. In this sense, although Damascus has both anti-west elements and reconciliation elements to its foreign policy, Assad will continue to pursue policies with any state that will help improve Syria’s economy and standing.
THE FUTURE OF THE MIDDLE EAST
It is difficult to say what the Middle East will look like in twenty years. Presumably, the US will still have a lasting influence and presence in the region, as will those fighters who reject this American position. Yet the question of who will be (and if there will be) a regional hegemon is unclear. While some predict the end of the Iranian regime, others are sure that the regime is here to stay. It seems unlikely that the regime will fall, although a change in domestic politics is probable. Yet, Iran will continue to play the opposition to American interests in the Middle East. Syria will continue to try to ameliorate its standing with whomever and could even participate in a round of peace talks with Israel. Do not expect to see President Assad cut ties with Iran or Hezbollah and Hamas, although a peace with Israel could pacify these ties. Expect Turkey to continue its integration into the Middle East with increased economic and social ties around the region. While there is currently a severe spat between Ankara and Tel Aviv, the Turkish Israeli relations should return to amicable. Yet Ankara’s identity crisis (if the EU admits Turkey, its strategic position in the Middle East will certainly be reduced due to its commitments to Europe) could hurt its chances of becoming the regional hegemon.
The future of the Middle East is very blurry at the moment with any number of situations possible for the future. For peace in the region, the best option would be the continued ascension of Turkey or Syria (assuming Assad would be open to talks with Israel), but this is in no means guaranteed. Strategically, it would benefit the west and Israel to push for the further integration of Syria and Turkey to balance against the staying power of Tehran. While Israel does not seem to accept this (FM Avigdor Lieberman has recently lashed out at Damascus and Ankara) the west is more open to an increased regional role by either. While the future is unpredictable, expect a greater regional role for Turkey and Syria and a continued opposition to the US and Israel by Iran.