In the last two weeks there have been a number of reminders of how the configuration of the Middle East is in the process of dramatically changing. Over the last 10 days, in particular, Turkish artillery has been firing into northern Syria, in the aftermath of a mortar strike against the Turkish border town of Akcakale by the Syrian Army that killed a family of five. Damascus charges that Turkey is supplying the forces attacking the regime of Bashar al-Assad through this area. In the meantime, the Turkish Parliament just approved a bill authorizing the Turkish Army to engage in cross-border military operations into Syria.
As both armies exchanged fire for a week, Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gul, warned that “the worst case scenario we have all been dreading” was unfolding. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said: “… we are also not far from war.” Syrian spokesmen sought to stress that Turkish power was looming over the Arab states as a whole from the north. As Turkey began to make political recommendations about the composition of a post-Assad government, Syria’s information minister responded by playing on old Arab fears that Turkey wanted to control the Arab world by naming “the custodians” of Damascus, Mecca, Cairo and Jerusalem. He rebuked Ankara by also remarking: “Turkey is not the Ottoman Sultanate.”
Syria is not alone in looking suspiciously upon the reassertion of Turkish power. On Oct. 2, the Iraqi cabinet decided to annul all agreements which provided the basis of the Turkish military presence in Iraq that has lasted for 16 years. Turkey has maintained bases in Iraq since 1997, as well as armored artillery units. The U.S. military in Iraq provided an important buffer between Iraqi and Turkish forces, especially in the sensitive Kurdistan region. With the U.S. out of Iraq, Turkish forces are now being asked to withdraw.
While Turkey’s role in the future Middle East has been made into a major subject of discourse, particularly by events along the Syrian border, on Oct. 2, The New York Times focused on another great power that was also seeking to dominate the Middle East from the east, namely Iran. The newspaper carried a story about Major General Qassam Sulaimani, the commander of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards, under the headline: “Iran’s Master of Iraq Chaos Still Vexes the U.S.” According to the article, which was based on internal American cables, Suleimani was the senior Iranian official responsible for Tehran’s influence in the internal politics of Iraq and the provision of military support for the Assad regime in Syria.
Last year, The Guardian reported that a senior Iraqi politician gave General David Petreaus a text message in 2008 from Suleimani that read: “General Petraeus, you should know that I, Qassem Suleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan.”
This story was partly verified this January, when the Iranian news agency, ISNA, reported that in a speech about Lebanon and Iraq, Suleimani asserted: “These regions are one way or another subject to the control of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its ideas.” Last month, Iran admitted for the first time that the Quds Force had been deployed in both Lebanon and Syria. Thus, evidence is growing of the increasing military encroachments of both Turkey and Iran in the heartland of the Arab world.
This change amounts to a new reconfiguration of the politics of the Middle East. For most of the period after World War II, it was common for intellectuals and politicians in the Arab world to blame the lack of progress in their countries on the presence of the forces of Western imperialism, which first entered the Middle East with the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt in 1798. But once France left Algeria in 1962 and the British announced their withdrawal “east of Suez” in 1968, the main Western forces remaining were those of the U.S. Now it is broadly assumed in the Middle East that the U.S. is finally about to withdraw from the region as did the British and French. But rather than the Arab world being left to itself, it is discovering that it will have to face the very two hegemonic powers that dominated the area for centuries before Napoleon’s armies arrived: Iran and Turkey.
Iran and Turkey will not admit that this is their plan. True, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has been charged by critics of being influenced by “neo-Ottoman fantasies.” In Oct. 2009, he spoke in Sarajevo and claimed that “the Balkans, Caucasus, and Middle East were all better off when under Ottoman control or influence.” Looking at the spread of wars in these regions, he announced “Turkey is back,” implying that it would have a more activisitic role in these conflicts.
The ideological component of Turkish policy sometimes slips out through statements by its leaders. At a meeting two weeks ago of his AKP Party, Erdogan presented himself as a leader of the Muslim nation, even invoking the names of the great Sultans of Ottoman history, like Muhammad the Conqueror Selim I, and Suleiman. True, Turkish officials speak of using “soft power” for influence, but their government is getting drawn more deeply into Syria’s internal war, against the wishes of Turkish public opinion.
The machinations of the Iranians across the Middle East have also become transparent as they have been growing beyond Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza from the Shiite revolt in Bahrain, the Houthi revolt on Yemeni Shiites, and their military involvement against the uprising of the Syrian Sunni population. Saudi Arabia understood very early that the 2003 Iraq War would lead to Iraq coming under Iranian domination. In fact, King Abdullah once complained to a high-level U.S. official: “You have allowed the Persians, the Safavids, to take over Iraq.” The Saudi king was referring to the Safavid Empire which ruled Iran from 1501 until the dawn of Western expansionism in the 18th century. With the West pulling out, from the Saudi view, the Safavids were back.
As the Middle Eastern great powers of the 18th century return to dominate the region due to what many in the Arab world expect to be a likely American pullback, it will be critical for both Turkey and Iran to divert the attention of the Arab states from this changing balance of power. Both Erdogan’s Turkey and Khamenei’s Iran need the struggle against Israel to keep the Arab states distracted from influence they seek to build and exercise.
It will not be so simple to wave the flag of the Palestinian issue in order to cover up their own encroachments on the rest of the Middle East. Many Sunni Arabs understand that Iranian special forces were involved in the massacres of their people in Syria, which were part of the spreading of Iranian power across the region. Pointing to Israel will not change what Iran did in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. Ironically, Israel and the Arab states have growing mutual interests in seeing that their region is not dominated by either Turkey or Iran, but whether they can draw together to block these two powers remains to be seen.