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Turkey's New Role or Awakening the Sleeping Levantine Giant

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The reemergence of Turkey in Arab politics has many in Turkey and the region asking if veering Ankara's politics back towards the Levant is a wise policy.

Turkey is "very worried over the situation in Syria," high-level diplomatic sources who asked not to be named have told this reporter. And with good reason. Actually two very good reasons.

First, given its proximity to the fighting in Syria, and the fact that Turkey harbors a number of minority groups, including an important Alawite minority, the risk of a spill-over effect is not to be underestimated. Add to that the fact that Turkey has taken a stand in the Syria dispute opens up Ankara to retributions; the kidnapping of Turkish citizens in Beirut two weeks ago is a sign of things to come. Not a good omen by any means according to a number of sources in the Turkish capital.

"The situation is difficult to predict," the diplomatic source said, in reference to the current unrest in Syria. Indeed, it is.

Turkey's role and political ambitions in the modern Middle East are yet to be properly defined, both by itself and to some extent by the countries concerned by the reemergence of Turkey as a regional power. Just how much do Arab countries want to see Turkish involvement in Middle East affairs?

Given the current lack of pan-Arab leadership there is a position that needs to be filled and that both Turkey and Iran have been jousting over, each vying to play that role.

With the traditional leaders in the Arab world - Egypt, Syria and Iraq - preoccupied by their domestic problems, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been actively trying to fill the void. But while the two Gulf countries come equipped with ample amounts of hard cash to purchase a certain following they lack the charismatic clout and historic political appeal needed to draw in the masses from the street that leaders from Egypt and Syria and to a lesser degree, Iraq, were capable of drawing in the past.

Additionally, the two Gulf countries are seen as supporting one side in the disputes shaking the Arab world, as is the case in Syria and in Lebanon, and neither Riyadh nor Doha can be seen as being honest brokers given the support they have given the Syrian opposition and certain parties in Lebanon.

Ironically, the two capitals in the region that today carry the greatest influence in the Arab street are not Arabs. Tehran and Ankara, each reflecting opposing views of the intra-Arab and Intra-Muslim disputes are reaching out to the Arab World as they try to fill the void in pan-Arab leadership.

Both Ankara and Tehran are banking on developing greater clout through their diplomatic involvement and through their media outreach. Iran has invested much in television broadcast in Press TV, in English, and Al-Alam, in Arabic, and is pressing ahead with plans for even more broadcasting channels in Arabic. Similarly, Anadolu Agency, Turkey's government run news agency is enlarging its Arabic service, opening up bureaus across the region and hiring staff to report in Arabic.

Indeed there is a role for Ankara to play here although many are those in Turkey who are not pleased with the way Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been steering Turkey back into Levantine politics, in a way undoing the efforts of Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, who wanted to see Turkey turn more towards Europe and away from the Arab world. But after getting the cold shoulder from the EU for so long Erdogan was left with little choice but to turn back towards the Arab world.

The question many are asking today is if bringing Turkey into the fray of Middle East politics does not simply extend the conflict? Some see it as such: If China was seen as the sleeping dragon of Asia, not to be awakened, similarly, Turkey should have been perceived as the sleeping giant of the Levant. Suffice to say that for Turkey there is no going back to the status quo ante. As for the future, as one Turkish diplomatic source said. "We expect reason will prevail." That may be wishful thinking.

Claude Salhani, a specialist in conflict resolution, is an independent journalist, political analyst and author of several books on the region. His latest book, 'Islam Without a Veil,' is published by Potomac Books. He tweets @claudesalhani.