The New Middle East and Turkey

In March of 1941, Nazi Germany seemed to overrun the Middle East and deprive Britain of its historic and hegemonic role in the region. The British government under Winston Churchill made an offer, supposedly very enticing to the Turkish Government. "Help us to occupy Syria, and we will share the spoils with you -- the north of the country to you, the south to us."

The elusive ally, as Turkey was described by a historian of its foreign policy, justified its reputation and turned down the unprecedented offer. Its Foreign Minister Saracuglu told the British, that the Syrians were tough customers, alluding to the 400 years of Ottoman Turkish rule over Syria.

This was another Middle East, and this was another Turkey, still dominated by the Kemalist ideology, looking towards Europe for inspiration, rather than back towards its lost lands in the region, Syria included. Turkey under the moderate Islamic AKP -- with P.M Erdogan as the undisputed leader -- is engaged in a comprehensive reevaluation of its regional role. There are many reasons for that, among them the reluctance of the EU to accept Turkey as a full-fledged member, for fear of changing its character by the inclusion of such a vast Muslim population, something that is widely resented by most Turks including the secular element of the Turkish people.

The fact is that almost for a decade the AKP gradually pulled Turkey away from the basic tenets of the Kemalist ideology and that is the culmination of profound developments inside Turkey itself which seem to have much greater effect than European attitudes.

Be as may, the new Turkey has already started to flex its muscles in a way which leaves small room for doubt. P.M Erdogan wants to become the new strong man of the Middle East, so much so that he is already called the new Sultan.

Turkish relations with Israel, which evolved for 3-4 decades into an undeclared strategic alliance, were first to feel the brunt of the new policy. The last three years have witnessed a sharp deterioration in the relations and very little is left of the alliance. Yet the two parties are very careful not to go beyond the point of no return. In the case of Turkey, Erdogan is subjected to some pressure from the military establishment, the traditional proponent of the old alliance as well as some secular groups. Erdogan who proved himself to be an astute diplomat knows also that a final, complete rift with Israel will bring about a crisis with the US. Turkey and Israel may still heal some wounds, though the intimacy of previous years is no more.

Erdogan has made major strides towards Iran, but let's not be fooled by that. In the Middle East, history usually repeats itself, and Turkish-Iranian relations have always been problematic, tensed and competitive rather than cooperative. Turkey being the largest Sunni state in the Middle East, Iran being the Shi'ite power. Love lost has not historically characterized these relationships, nor will it be the case in the foreseeable future.

Syria may prove to be one of the potential collision points between the two regional powers. In the last few years, Erdogan promoted Turkey's relations with Syria, overcoming the legacy of longstanding mistrust. Some Middle East observers went as far as to suggest that Bashar Assad looked to Turkey as a possible alternative to his alliance with Iran, as well as a shield against possible future Israeli aggression against his country.

Bashar Assad is still around -- it's not clear for how long -- but Erdogan is already preparing for the post-Assad era in Syria and its likely regional implications. Iran, on the other hand, sees no horizon beyond Assad, and knows full well that his downfall will be a crucial setback to its regional aspirations. Not so for Turkey, which stands to gain from a post-Assad Sunni-dominated Syria.

There is an unmistakable buzz in diplomatic circles in the region clearly indicating that Turkey is engaged in behind-the-scenes efforts, in conjunction with some Arab countries, to find ways to smooth the expected transition in Syria. The fact that this new new situation may mean a defeat to Iran is among the prime calculations of the countries participating in these talks, Turkey included.

In public, Erdogan has sharpened his rhetoric when talking about Syria in general, and Bashar Assad in particular. The tone is clear, and the music is that Syria will have to change. Here is a challenge also to the US and the NATO Alliance. When the time comes to intensify pressure on Bashar Assad, give a major role to Turkey. This time around, the Turks may not refuse.