Russia, Turkey, Iran reassert glory of past empires in today's Middle East

The three countries see the Arab countries as weak and exploitable, and two of them, seek to reassert their former spheres of control there.

THE RUSSIAN and Turkish foreign ministers meet in Munich last week. (photo credit: REUTERS)
THE RUSSIAN and Turkish foreign ministers meet in Munich last week.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Three countries – Russia, Turkey and Iran – are currently trying to reassert their former influence and glory, harking back to the power and greatness of the former Czarist/Soviet, Ottoman and Persian empires, respectively. In many ways these three imperial states, led by autocratic leaders – President Vladimir Putin, President Recep Erdogan, and Ayatollah Khamenei, respectively – are similar and have found it convenient to collaborate in some matters. But, in most ways these leaders and their putative empires are very competitive.
The difference between these three intended empires and the USA is very stark. While the US is really the only superpower, President Donald Trump has enunciated a policy of withdrawal from the Middle East, the main area of big power conflicts, even though his mantra is “Make America Great Again.” In this policy he continues that of his predecessor, Barack Obama, who also had a policy of retraction from the Middle East. By contrast, Russia, Turkey and Iran are all in an expansionist phase, particularly in that region.
They see the Arab countries as weak and exploitable, and two of them, Iran and Turkey, seek to reassert their former spheres of control there. Russia, it is said, has always sought a warm water port in the Mediterranean Sea, and in fact Obama’s incompetence gifted that to Putin.
When he declared his red line over the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, and then instead allowed Putin to come into Syria to mediate the removal of those weapons from Assad, he released a monster. Putin got his port at Latakia and then an airfield, and then participated in the fighting with Assad’s regime and saved it from the brink of defeat and brought it to victory, at the cost of millions of lives. Syria is now effectively a vassal state of Russia, and Putin will decide its fate.
Iran has also been active in Syria, through its Quds Force of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), whose former leader, Gen. Qasem Soleimani, was assassinated by the US.
There is a relationship between Assad, who comes from the Alawite minority in Syria, and the Shia from Iran. But we should see that as an ideological excuse to justify Iranian expansionism into the Arab world.
Although they would be loath to admit it, Shi’ism is a cloak for the reassertion of Iranian power in the region formerly part of the Persian Empire. Its influence now extends to Yemen, where Iran supports the Houthi rebels; Iraq, where it controls the Popular Mobilization Forces; and Lebanon, where Hezbollah is its dependent proxy.
Turkey under Erdogan has been veering away from the democratic Westernized Turkey that Kemal Ataturk foresaw, toward a Sunni religious format. In doing so, he has taken on the dubious role of reconstituting the Ottoman Empire. He has entered the Syrian morass, defeated the Kurdish forces and occupied a 30-kilometer stretch of Syrian territory where he claims he intends to settle some of the millions of Syrian evacuees in his country.
He controls northern Cyprus, and his latest move is into Libya, where he has agreed to support the supposedly legitimate government in Benghazi in exchange for oil exploitation rights in the Mediterranean. Meanwhile Russia is supporting the insurgent army of Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who controls Tripoli and much of Libya.
The reduction of American presence and power in the Middle East, coupled with a reluctance to use that power, has resulted in the proverbial power vacuum. This has enticed these three states to exercise their own expansionist dreams, fueling their own versions of “Make X Great Again,” where X=Russia, Turkey and Iran. How these imperial designs and competitions will play out remains to be seen.
The writer was born in London and received a PhD in chemistry from Cambridge University. He was a professor at Georgetown Medical School in Washington, DC, and in 1996 made aliyah and was chief scientist at Tel Hashomer Hospital. He is currently a visiting professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.