Turkey in a new Middle East
It was thought that the Middle East, in the greater sense, had experienced a major change after Mohammed Buazizi set himself ablaze in protest at the dictatorship in Tunisia in December 2010. It was thought that the winds of the Arab Spring would blow the spirit of freedom all over the region.
Tunisia was followed by riots in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and as a last stop in Syria. The autocratic regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt were toppled. Things started to turn sour in Yemen and Bahrain. In Yemen the alternative was al-Qaeda. In Bahrain the alternative was a pro-Iranian Shiite majority. Saudi Arabia intervened to suppress the Spring there. Libya is a totally different story with its artificial structure, mainly an enforced coalition of tribes and sects.
The Muslim Brotherhood, or Ikhwan, was the main opposition movement in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria and had been banned in all three countries. Lacking a strict organizational body and generally staying away from terrorism, it was like an ideal recipe for the Western strategist who had been looking for a cure against the growing influence of al-Qaeda. There was already a conservative government in Turkey with non-violent Islamic roots and holding power through democratic means since 2002 in Turkey, but Turkey was not an Arab country and Turkey had chosen not to rule the state apparatus according to religion, having adopted a secular system long ago.
Yet, the Tunisian and Egyptian examples created hopes in the U.S. and Europe - and in Turkey, too -that there might be a chance to make democracy, human rights and the rule of law a priority in the Islamic world, Arab or non-Arab, through the ballot box. That hope hit the rocks in Syria. Bashar al-Assad did not meet an end like those of Muammar Gadhafi, Zeinel Abidin bin Ali or Hosni Mobarak. He followed a multi-channel strategy: He started to use all military means to crush the Ikhwan-lead opposition, used selective diplomacy by playing his Iran and Russia cards, as Syria provides access for Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon and also the only military base in the entire region to Russia. At the same time, he used deception methods to divide and disperse Ikhwan by encouraging al-Qaeda groups to cultivate within them. All succeeded, if you’d like to call the result a success after more than 120,000 were killed and more than 2 million became refugees in the two-year-long civil war.
In the meantime, the Ikhwan-backed new president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, was toppled through a military coup on July 3, which was congratulated and supported by Saudi Arabia first. That was a major disappointment for Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, especially when his efforts to convince the U.S. to condemn the coup failed. Moreover, after the fall of Ikhwan in Egypt, the Syrian opposition was further damaged and extremist Sunni groups linked to al-Qaeda and Kurdish groups linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in Turkey gained support. The new government in Egypt started to play the Suez card against the U.S. and Europe once again, as another indication of a new and Cold War balances second to Syria, where the game boiled down to U.S.-Russia bargaining. Another indication is Israel’s complaints concerning the U.S. policy to decrease the level of antagonism with Iran through diplomacy.
It is possible that in American and European eyes, who have their own economic and social problems and less dependence to Middle East energy resources now, the last few years is nothing but a failed experiment of democracy. If we are back to factory settings, that is Cold War settings in the greater Middle East, that means “stability first” politics, instead of “try democracy.”
Will Erdoğan digest as soon as possible that the Ikhwan experiment has failed and that real-politik started to dominate the regional politics once again? It needs a shift from Turkish government’s current “conscience” or ideology-based politics, but it seems that it is a necessity for a recovery after Egypt and Syria, let alone the plunging relations with Israel.