How long will it be before Hezbollah’s dominance of Lebanon, coupled with its ties to Iran proves intolerable to Syria? And will Turkey’s newly found and aggressively advanced agenda as a leader in the Middle East (and beyond) be tolerated by one or more of the presumptive leaders – Egypt, for example?
Lost in the simplified and simplistic media world, particularly in the US, is the fact that there are multiple, conflicting practical interests among the players in the region. These are likely to rise rapidly to the surface as the US pulls back from Iraq and leaves the region to the strongest. Unfortunately, the ill advised and profoundly stupid invasion and subsequent “reconstruction” of Iraq by the US eliminated a key, secular player and handed it to one of the key religious players, Iran.
Nevertheless, the cracks are beginning to appear. The recent visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Lebanon probably was an unwelcome event for Damascus. Syria has always view Lebanon as part of a greater Syria and worked with Hezbollah to act as a proxy against Israel and if Hezbollah was financed by Tehran, so much the better. However, Syria considers Lebanon as its territory and tolerates Hezbollah only so long as they follow rules set down in Damascus, which has been known to react violently against Hezbollah (23 shot by Syrian troops in 1987) when they go too far and risk involving Syria in a wider conflict. Iran, of course, has a different agenda and sees Hezbollah as a tool to extend its influence and particular brand of religiosity into the region. Iran also would like to firmly entrench its power in Lebanon as it simultaneously extends its control of Iraq. Sooner or later, despite the current arrangement (it is hardly an alliance) among the three is going to unravel.
Iran and Syria have, at times, conflicting agendas, not the least of which is that Iran would like to export its vision of Islam and form of government into the Arab world. Since Iranians are not Arab, this is bound to create a problem. In addition, Syria is not particularly interested in seeing Iranian influence rise in Lebanon or Iraq. As a result of the 2006 war with Israel where Hezbollah demonstrated it could fight the strongest military in the region outside of Turkey to a standstill and the withdrawal of all Syrian troops from Lebanon, Syria suffered a defeat in its foreign policy agenda regarding Lebanon and Iraq. Iran gained an advantage. But, at the end of the day, Iran was far away and Syria was not. It is now back in strength, its security apparatus controlling Lebanon and remaining a threat to Hezbollah and its Iranian ally.
This brings in the other players – Turkey and Iran’s arch enemy, Saudi Arabia. Both have intensified their foreign policy campaigns to court Syria. Neither are friends of Hezbollah or, despite the rhetoric of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Iran. Syria is very happy to exploit the leverage provided by the Saudi’s and it is not lost on Hezbollah that Syria holds many of the cards for determining the future of Lebanon – and that Iranian control is not in the picture as far as Damascus is concerned.
Nevertheless, Syria is not strong enough to abandon its relationship with Iran or Hezbollah. It remains a better tactic to retain the leverage of both its regained supremacy in Lebanon, its new relationship with Turkey and Saudi Arabia and the current arrangements with Hezbollah and Iran. From the point of view of Damascus, this is ideal. But, it won’t last basically because the original raison d’être for the arrangement with Hezbollah and Iran was to establish dominance over Lebanon – not to mention getting rid of Saddam Hussein. One part of the formula is finished. Hezbollah now is an obstacle to Syrian control of Lebanon because of its ties to Iran. Hezbollah has good reason to be concerned about Syria’s next steps and Iran would be unable to save them against a serious Syrian push for complete control. Syria is in a good negotiating position with all sides in the region but, ultimately, it is not interested in seeing Iran as the major regional power. Neither is Turkey nor Saudi Arabia – not to mention Israel. Iran and Hezbollah should be worried.
This brings me to the second question posed at the beginning of this post. What about Turkey? Despite its publically repeated message that it’s foreign policy is to seek peace in its neighborhood, the geo-political reality is that it is the major power in the region with influence far beyond its borders based on culture, religion and the legacy (sometimes not so great) of the Ottoman Empire. With regard to the latter, that legacy is not fondly recalled in places like Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Turkey has finally engaged in a re-definition of its foreign policy and can do so because of two events – the collapse of the Soviet Union and the questionable usefulness of NATO. The first has brought into serious question the survivability of the second. The continued stonewalling by the EU regarding the accession process has also impacted the direction of its foreign policy activities, much to the apparent dismay of those same members who accuse Turkey of abandoning the West.
Turkey characterizes its active foreign policy initiatives as deepening political relations, increasing trade and starting a cultural dialogue with its neighbours. At the same time, the internal political necessity of pleasing the voters who support the AKP require the current government to take a more independent, less Western oriented position regarding, for example, the Iranian nuclear program. At the same time, Turkey is not interested in importing an Iranian political and religious ideology regardless of its own deeply held religious beliefs. Nor is it supportive of an Iranian take-over of Iraq despite its equal dislike of an independent Kurdish state that could be triggered by the dominance of Iran in Baghdad.
Yet its policies and preaching do not go down well in parts of Egyptian society – historically the leader of the Arab world. Turkey has a tiny non-Muslim population and consequently can afford to preach. Egypt does not and has not been especially pleased with Erdogan’s lectures. This may be the opening shot of a push-back against Turkish cultural expansionism that uses the vehicle of Islamic principals to achieve another, more geo-political goal, at the expense of countries like Egypt and Syria.
Turkey, like Iran, is not an Arab state. The traditional Arabic leaders will be wary of the diplomatic, economic and social manoeuvring of Turkey which, although it has not reached the active dislike of attempts by Iran to extend its vision of religious governance, may well trigger actions to blunt similar regional hegemonic attempts. However, in the current climate, it is unlikely that further resistance to Turkish influence extension will manifest itself with anything more dramatic than private concerns expressed over relaxed afternoon tea. It is on Iran that Egypt, Syria and especially Saudi Arabia are focusing their attention. Consequently, while Iran remains an issue, Turkey will be able to extend its influence more or less unopposed.
For example, Turkey has proved to be very successful in developing its interests in Afghanistan and the Kyrgyz Republic. In the former, its cultural understanding has proved to be invaluable for military training purposes. In the latter, Turkey will supply $800 million of military aid to the government, helping to advance its interests in Central Asia – largely of Turkic origin. An eventual settlement of the Ngorno Kharabakh issue between Armenia and Azerbaijan as well as continued aid to Georgia further establishes regional influence eastward for Turkey. This is something to be encouraged inasmuch as all these states, with the exception of Armenia which is firmly under Russian influence, are in the front line of Iranian attempts to expand its ideology.
Turkey will be put to the test on another matter very, very soon. It is a member of NATO and although its policy of “zero problems with neighbours” does not diminish its commitment to NATO, many in the West consider the policy as making Turkey an unreliable partner. The test will occur when Turkey must decide on November 19 or 20 whether to deploy a proposed missile shield, against a yet unrealized threat of Iranian missiles, on Turkish soil.
A “no” will serve no other purpose than to reinforce the neo-con and Israeli propaganda that Turkey cannot be trusted. It could also lead to the withdrawal of Turkey and the second largest army in Europe, from NATO – a fatal blow to an already questionable alliance. A “yes” will seriously impair Turkish foreign policy in the region and it would not be possible for Ankara to maintain the positive atmosphere in ties with either Iran or Syria which it sees a fundamental requirement of its national interests. On the other hand, a “yes” would elicit all the support Turkey needs from a far more conservative Saudi Arabia.
Turkey, having decided it was time to act like a grown-up rather than the ward of the US, now has the difficult prospect of making serious foreign policy decisions which will not only impact its own geo-political goals but those of the US, EU and other countries of the Middle East. It’s a new world. Welcome to it.