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Turkey: The Center of Everything

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ISTANBUL - It's dark and foggy here today along the mighty Bosphorus that separates Europe and Asia. Just as murky and dangerous as exploding-next-door Syria.

Turkey's formerly very successful "no problems" foreign policy crafted by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutogolu buried old arguments with Syria, Iran, and Lebanon and opened billions of new trade for Turkey's bustling exporters. Turkey's red hot economy grew 7% last year -- almost as fast as China.

But that was before Libya, Syria and Egypt erupted. Turkey's highly popular prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was forced to take sides. Turkey called for Egypt's terminally ill pharaoh, Hosni Mubarak, to leave office, but still kept its support with Egypt's all-powerful army. This was ironic since Erdogan had just waged a decade-long battle to push Turkey's bullying army out of politics.

By contrast, Turkey reluctantly abandoned Libya's Gaddafi, an old friend, with whom Ankara was doing about $23 billion in trade, as a lost cause. Erdogan's response to Syria was similar: Erdogan insists the Assad family must go and be replaced by a Turkish-style democracy tempered with Islamic values of social welfare and justice.

Interestingly, Davutoglu just announced a new "Turkish-Egyptian axis," thus linking the region's two most powerful, populous nations. Davutoglu, citing an old Ottoman maxim said, "Turkey will be again placed at the center of everything."

Meanwhile, the US has been quietly shoring up Egypt's large armed forces; the Saudis just slipped $4 billion to Egypt's military. The Saudis, with Washington's blessings, have reportedly promised Egypt tens of billions -- maybe even $60 billion -- more to keep democrats, nationalists, Nasserites and the stodgy Muslim Brotherhood out of power.

Cynics here in Istanbul wonder if Turkey is considering turning strife-torn Syria into a sort of Turkish protectorate. Syria is plunging ever nearer to civil war; a stabilizing force may be needed to sort it out and hold it together. Iraq is also getting involved in Syria.

Syria's conflict is confusing. It began a year ago when insurgent groups slipped in from neighboring Lebanon. They were armed, supplied and trained by the CIA, Britain's MI6, and Israel's Mossad. Their finances came from the US Congress, which voted in the 1980's to fund overthrowing Syria's Assad regime because of its antagonism to Israel and support for Palestinians, and from the Saudis.

In the 1920's, a leading Zionist thinker, Vladimir Jabotinsky, proclaimed the Arab world was a brittle mosaic of tribes and clans. A few sharp raps, he predicted, would splinter the whole fragile mess and leave a new Jewish state as paramount power of the Mideast and its oil. He was thinking primarily of Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

These armed Syrian groups of mercenaries, Assad-hating Lebanese fascists, and CIA-cultivated anti-Assad exiles, lit the fuse in Syria. Their attacks, mainly along the Lebanese border, ignited resistance by long repressed Sunni Muslim conservatives, bitter foes of the Assad's Alawi-dominated regime. Alawi -- an offshoot of Iran's Shia and Turkey's Alevi -- tend to be poor, clannish and disliked by mainstream Sunni as heretics.

Many of Syria's smaller cities and towns have revolted, but not yet its large cities, Damascus, Latakia and Aleppo but their vital economies are collapsing.

Syria has fragmented along ethnic/religious grounds. Some of the Sunni majority, particularly the powerful merchant class, still support Assad. So do Syria's ancient Christians, about 10% of the population. Like Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Syria's Assad protected his nation's Christian sects from those fanatics who call Christians western-backed traitors or idol worshipers.

Add smaller numbers of restive Syrian Kurds with links to rebellious Kurds in southwestern Turkey, where rebellion has simmered for decades and, as I saw covering the conflict, left 40,000 dead.

Syria is a long-time ally of Iran. The Western powers and Israel are avid to tear apart Syria, thus dealing a severe blow to not only Iran, but Syria's other allies, Lebanon's Hezbollah and Palestine's Hamas.

Equally important, if Syria collapses, its highly strategic Golan Heights, annexed by Israel since 1967, will remain unchallenged in Israel's hands. Golan is Israel's primary source of ground water.

A splintering Syria will be a catastrophe for the central Mideast. But the US, France, Israel and Britain are so blinded by their anti-Iran passion, they are ready to destroy Syria to get at Great Satan Iranian. That's like burning down your house to get rid of mice.