Three Men at the Crossroad of Choices

06/17/2011 09:41 pm ET | Updated Aug 17, 2011

Three men stand at the crossroad of choices this month. Time will judge each of them for the extent of boldness, wisdom, leadership and partnership they show with their people, as they draft their future and the future of their countries. Otherwise, the judgment of history will be merciless. Those men are: Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was reelected this week for a third term and who has proven his skill at adapting to emerging realities and has not feared change; Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, who is increasingly besieging himself in international and regional isolation, due to his refusal to understand the demands of the Syrian people, and choosing instead control and repression as the way to remain in power; and Najib Mikati, the Lebanese Prime Minister, and the head of a 'monochromatic' cabinet of an all-male team that is made up in its majority of individuals loyal to Damascus, with Hezbollah as its most prominent pillar. This week Mikati formed a cabinet of political procrastination, which he believes is temporary, or otherwise, he has plunged himself and the country into a pit of which the consequences will be painful for him and fateful for Lebanon. As regards Erdoğan, he was hitherto besieged by his friendships with the Arab and Iranian leaders that are rejected by their people. He then became aware that the public opinion emerging from the Arab Spring was now willing to accuse him of double standards, if he were to continue with his hesitation and waiting, and so he resolved and made a decision: He realized that he had no choice but to reshape the identity and the nature of the regional role he seeks for Turkey to play. He thus introduced change to Turkey's foreign policy and reconsidered the doctrine he and his Justice and Development Party had embraced, based on relations with the Muslim neighborhood with "zero problems," even against the background of a "stability" ensured by authoritarianism and tyranny. Turkey's leadership has chosen to stop turning a blind eye to the violations committed by its friends in power in Syria and Iran, after reaching the conclusion that it had no choice but to abandon its other friend in Libya. What has transpired at the level of international relations as a result of the Arab Spring has reshuffled Turkey's cards in both the East and the West -- with Arab countries and Iran, and with the Barack Obama Administration, the European Union and Israel.

Erdoğan exerted his utmost efforts with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, as with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, in order to convince them of the necessity for reform or making amends, but he failed. Erdoğan found himself not knowing what to do, after having exerted every effort with Assad and sent him serious messages that Turkey would not be able to provide him with cover if he were to continue adopting policies that reject reform, and the bloody use of force against protesters. Erdoğan felt powerlessness as he attempted to convince his friend in Damascus of what would be in Syria's interest and perhaps in the interest of the Syrian President as well, had he been convinced or became capable of abandoning some members of his family connected to the bloody use of force and to corruption. Erdoğan wished he had succeeded to stop the descent of the leadership in Damascus, and perhaps of Syria, towards a fate Turkey does not wish for. His patience ran out when he reached the conclusion that the regime in Damascus had resolved to be arrogant, defiant and to be in denial, wagering on a victory it promised itself -- one which many consider Damascus to be deluding itself with, among them its Turkish neighbor. The developments coming out of Damascus have made Turkey's leadership reconsider not just the usefulness of its friendships with those do not speak the language of democracy and have grown accustomed authoritarianism, but also its reliance on Syria as the gateway for Turkey's regional policies.

The results of the elections in Turkey have given the Justice and Development Party (AKP) a new mandate, but those results came with a warning to Erdoğan that Turkey would not accept dictatorship or a monopoly of power. The elections have made Erdoğan realize that he must not allow power to turn him into a tyrant or to make him imagine himself to be an emperor, as does Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, knowing that both seek to become absolute rulers by amending the Turkish and Russian constitutions. Rather, the Turks consider their democracy and their freedom to be an integral part of their identity, and they will not allow these to be compromised. Erdoğan has heeded this, as he had recently -- and after much hesitation -- heeded what the Arab people demanded of him. The Turkish people have placed Erdoğan under scrutiny. Some of them have voiced their dissatisfaction with the fact that he stood with only his wife by his side on the podium, with other AKP leaders in the second row behind them. Others have also complained of Erdoğan's personality, which makes him place his opinion above everyone else's, and which makes him quickly lose his temper and make arbitrary decisions. Many Turks feared that Erdoğan obtaining the 367 seats would have allowed him to amend the constitution alone, without even needing to submit the amendment to a referendum. Those considerations all contributed to a victory that was not overwhelming for the Justice and Development Party (AKP), with less than fifty percent of seats. This forces the party to work with other parties, and denies it the capacity of making decisions alone. And indeed, such results are not arbitrary, because a significant proportion of the Turks do not want to break away from secularism, and refuses to bring Turkey into Islamic rule.

The majority of Turks would not mind for the "Turkish model" to be followed by Arab and Muslim countries, and in fact encourage this; on the condition that it does not require radically subjugating Turkish society and distancing it from the democracy it prides itself in. This has forced the AKP to modify its identity and its ambitions, in a manner that meets the satisfaction of the majority of Turks, as they were not satisfied with a formula of stability that sacrifices values important to them. Even regarding Iran, not all Turks were completely satisfied about what seemed like a Turkish cover for its nuclear ambitions, especially as this phase of the relationship between the Turkish and Iranian governments coincided with the violent repression of protesters by the Iranian regime. Some in the Turkish government are completely convinced that the reason for Turkey's immunity and regional superiority is that it is democratic. Geography of course contributed to Turkey's immunity against becoming a stronghold of extremist fundamentalism; but democracy remains Turkey's strongest weapon in the regional balance of power with Iran or with others in the Middle East. Erdoğan adapted in a matter of a few weeks after he soundly interpreted the events in Syria and after he listened to the Arab people, and to the Syrian people in particular. Of course, the measures taken by the Syrian regime at the border with Turkey and its pursuing refugees with military force came to hasten the deterioration of the relationship between Turkey and Syria. Yet it was Erdoğan's interpretation of the regional map that made him reconsider.

The new regional order is present in Erdoğan's mind and he is determined to seize the opportunity for Turkey, for the sake of his country and not just for the sake of his own ambitions. Erdoğan read the political landscape with the confidence of an expert who trusts in his ability to change his mind. His public turn against Bashar Al-Assad did not come out of the blue, but rather was the result of attempts that ended in failure. He waited and was patient, and when he found himself "flogging a dead horse" in Damascus, and that there was no hope in Arab governments and regimes rising boldly against Syria, as they had towards Libya, Erdoğan decided not to wait for the Arabs any longer. He took the initiative of turning his stances around and adapted to the requirements of new realities, with political pragmatism as well as sympathy towards the Syrian people, and respect for their right to self-determination. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin did not do the same. His Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov does not think along the same lines as Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. Lavrov is a Soviet by nature, and Davutoğlu is a reformer by training, and a reformer by nature. Adapting is difficult for Putin and Lavrov, because the regime in their country is not democratic at its core and in its history, and because the Arab Spring strikes terror in the heart of Russia, which is still being ruled by men from the era of Soviet rule. In truth, those men fear freedom, democracy and change, as do the men of the regimes in Libya, Yemen and Syria.

Bashar Al-Assad standing at the crossroad of choices today resembles standing at the edge of the abyss. The Syrian President could have taken the right decisions and placed Syria on the path of serious reform. He could have made his rule the era of emerging freedom, change and democracy. But he opted not to do so. Assad committed grave mistakes, just as he misestimated the situation and was excessively self-confident. The mistake of dealing with his people in this manner may well be a fatal one for him; regardless of how much he wagers today on the Arabs remaining silent and failing to take action towards the Syrian people. Matters will not return to normal in Syria, no matter how much the Syrian President believes that Russia will cover his back, as he is with this misestimating yet again. He should only remember how he sat in front of the television screen to watch the vote at the Security Council, with the absolute certainty that Russia would use its veto against the resolution to establish the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) to try those involved in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and his 22 companions. It never did. Russia abstained from voting that day and the surprise coming out of New York came as shock to the President sitting in front of the television screen in Damascus. Even in Lebanon, where Bashar Al-Assad committed many grave mistakes, there are signs that he might commit yet another mistake. The relations held by the regime in Damascus with Hezbollah always go through the gateway of Iran, yet they also have a bilateral dimension in terms of how to control the Lebanese scene at the level of security, as well as politically. And this relationship will go through a difficult test sooner or later.

The third man standing at the crossroad of choices, Najib Mikati, is taking risks. He took a risk when he put himself forward as candidate for the office of Lebanese Prime Minister, shackled with conditions made clear by Hezbollah regarding the STL, weighed down by having turned into one of the symbols of Sunni division, and known as a major businessman with massive vital interests with members of the ruling family in Damascus. The risk he is taking today is even greater, after having formed a government cabinet that threatens to cause further internal division, amid Syria's resolve to play its major cards in Lebanon. He could very well lead Lebanon into a dark tunnel at the end of which it will have turned into a marginalized country, if it chooses to submit to the dictates of dodging international justice, and local and regional justice as well. But he could also be the man of moderation who saw in forming a government such as this, an opportunity to buy time until matters become clearer. In both cases, he does not seem to be in tune with the Arab awakening, but rather shaken by its winds.

Three men, three choices, and history will in the very near future be able to judge them.