8 Jun 2010

A New Middle-Eastern Triangle?

by Marwan Bishara in Imperium on June the 8th, 2010

Recent events and diplomatic activity before and after the Israeli attack on the Gaza "freedom flotilla" have delineated a new powerful regional triangle at the expense of an old Arab one.

The rapprochement between Iran, Turkey and Syria is creating a new regional axis that, for all practical purposes, could replace the diminished Arab triangle of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria and transform the region in the process.

The visits of the Iranian and Syrian presidents to Turkey this week have underlined a new sense of solidarity and cooperation that will be followed with much interest and concern in Western capitals and Israel.

If strengthened, the new trio could break up the US imposed moderate-extremist division of the region and instead introduce a diverse, hard to isolate new axis that is fundamentally opposed to the Israeli occupation and committed to breaking the siege of Gaza.

Each of these Middle East players bring important strategic assets to the table: Iran is an energy rich Gulf power with an important nuclear card in hand; Turkey is an emerging Euro-Asian power with NATO membership; and Syria is an Arab nation with influence in Lebanon, which could as an indispensable partner in the Arab trio, legitimise the new triangle in Arab eyes.

The three countries have maintained an open border policy which could eventually create a market of more than 150 million people.

The old triangle

Syria's disagreement with Egypt over the Palestinian issue and its tensions with Saudi Arabia over the Iranian issue have - among other factors - served to diminish the so-called Arab triangle that has exercised an important influence on Arab policies for decades.

Beginning with their coordination on the eve of the 1973 war against Israel to recover lands occupied in 1967 and their cooperation on the 1989 Taif agreement that brought an end to the Lebanese civil war, through to their support for the US war to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation and the consensus that underlay the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, Damascus, Cairo and Riyadh have been able, at times, to effect major change in the Arab world.

Their triangle was never formal or explicitly stated and some of their detractors saw it as no more than a fantasy.

But, in reality it was a pragmatic and effective way to serve their agenda when convenient: Egypt exploited the 1973 war to sign a separate agreement with Israel; Syria used the Taif agreement to get its hands on Lebanon; and Saudi Arabia took advantage of a weaker Iraq to extend its regional influence under US auspices.

However, Israeli rejection of their peace initiative and US wars and interventions after 9/11 have left the Arab trio in disarray and the Arabs in a mess.

Disagreements over how best to respond to the Israeli wars on Lebanon and Gaza, or more specifically on how to deal with Hezbollah and Hamas, have broken the camel's back.

Enter an unlikely trio

Until recently, hostility defined Turkish-Syrian relations, just as coolness defined Turkish-Iranian relations.

Even though Turkey and Iran are founding members of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), Turkish ties with Israel and NATO have alienated Ankara from its Southern and Eastern neighbours.

The relationship between the secular Arab nationalist regime in Syria and the religious Shia regime in Iran was strengthened primarily by their common hostility toward Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

The Kurdish issue has been important for all three nations (as well as for Iraq) and was until recently a major point of contention between Turkey and Syria. The four nations have used and abused the Kurdish question whenever it has served their agendas.

Separated by language and historical experience, they made little effort to cement strong neighbourly relationships until a few years ago.

But, the election of the AK party in Turkey triggered an important political transformation that opened the way for relations to be strengthened with its neighbours.

A reinvigorated Turkey

Since then Turkey has strengthened its economic ties, opened its borders and conducted wide-ranging consultations - even coordination - on important regional issues with its Muslim neighbours.

It has also played an important mediating role between Syria and Israel, as well as between Iran and the West.

But Turkish-Israeli relations deteriorated over the failure of the Israeli government to respond positively to Turkish mediation and its decision to instead launch the war on Gaza at the end of 2008.

And then came the Israeli attack on the Turkish flotilla in international waters.

Ankara's response to the flotilla attack is bruising the relationship between the two countries more deeply than Israel would have ever anticipated.

The decision by Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, to refuse an international commission investigation into the flotilla attack - a Turkish condition for normalising relations - will lead to a further escalation in diplomatic hostilities.

Already, most of those Israelis who planned to vacation in Turkey this summer have cancelled their trips and the $3bn worth of trade and strategic ties between the two countries will be impacted as a result of Israel's actions.

Important, but is it lasting?

The Turkish/Iranian/Arab triangle could be very influential, but will it endure?

The trio is capable of torpedoing any foreign intervention in the region and could have enough strategic weight to advance aspects of their common agenda.

Whether it is a solution to the nuclear standoff with Iran, the blockade on Gaza/Hamas, or the future of Iraq once US forces leave, this trio could have a say in regional affairs.

To many Arabs it appears that Turkey is attempting to exercise the same political and diplomatic influence Saudi Arabia has tried and failed to accomplish, even though they are both US allies.

Iran, likewise, has been trying to play the role Egypt once championed in the Arab and Muslim world vis-a-vis Israel and the West.
For Syria's part, the new triangle fits better with its regional vision and ambitions and provides it with the necessary regional security and clout - far more than its ties with Egypt and Saudi Arabia could provide nowadays.

In the absence of a bold and common Arab agenda, expect other regional powers like Turkey and Iran to step in and fill the political and strategic void.

And yet one wonders how long the trio will last with Western pressure building up.

Some claim that Western/US pressure on their Turkish ally and Turkish-Iranian competition over regional influence could just as easily break up their 'ménage a trois' with Syria, in favour of gaining strategic clout.

What would happen if, for example, the US and Europe step up the pressure on Turkey to choose between the two camps? Or if Saudi Arabia and Egypt offered Turkey a central role in regional affairs as part of a new 'Sunni' axis, supported by the US and Europe?

No doubt much of this depends on the 'Middle East superpower', the US.

After all, Barack Obama has proved to be a pragmatic rather than ideological president who is more focused on relations with China than with Britain; with India and Brazil than with France.

He might, therefore, focus on Turkey's new clout and its leverage with Syria, Palestine and even Iran to advance US interests in the region, instead of banking on Egypt, Saudi Arabia or even Israel - who all suffer from huge political deficits.

It is worth remembering that Ankara has been rebuffed more than once by Europe. And as a member of NATO, it could not even solicit the alliance's condemnation of Israel's attack on its citizens in international waters.

For the time being, Turkey's opposition to sanctions - and any military attack on Iran - is helping Tehran to break out of Western imposed isolation and to a large extent it provides a protective shield against any major US attack with Brazilian and perhaps at a later stage, Chinese support.

As Turkey, Syria and Iran join their efforts and strengthen their ties, they are breaking up a Western imposed division of the region into extremists and moderates, rejectionists and accommodators of Western policies - the bedrock of US-Israeli policy - and forcing world powers to change their Middle East assumptions and perhaps strategies.

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