In several recent articles I stated that if Egypt and Syria were to follow the
“Turkish model,” as proposed by some Arab leaders and Western experts, the real
beneficiary of the Arab uprisings would be Turkey, with its Ottoman heritage of
control of the Levant and North Africa.
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.
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.
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
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
Moreover, paradoxically, Turkish and Iranian regional hegemonic
aspirations are both threatened by the drama unfolding in Syria.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
The most immediate impact will be on the Kurds in Turkey,
Syria and Iraq. The AKP government has not solved the Kurdish problem.
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
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
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
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
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.
is senior research scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism
(ICT) and the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Herzliya.