Turkey’s besting Iran in the contest for the hearts and minds of advocates of change in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa is proving to be both a blessing and a curse. With tension mounting over Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the perceived window of opportunity for a military strike closing, Turkey faces increased challenges and the threat of a proxy war with Syria and the Islamic republic. This is compounded by the fact that the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia need Turkey in their effort to further corner the regime in Syria and to isolate Iran, but want to prevent a shift in regional power away from the Kingdom and the Israeli state to Ankara -- increasingly held up as the model of an economically successful, Islamist-led democracy.
A concerted effort by the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia to further isolate Iran has laid bare the challenges facing Turkey against the backdrop of an ever more severe sanctions regime, increased debate regarding a military strike to prevent the Islamic republic from developing a nuclear weapon and popular revolts sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.
The challenges are evident in the anti-Iranian campaign’s little noticed subtext, with the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel seeking to prevent a shift of power in the region from Israel and the Gulf to Turkey and Iran. All three see benefit in Turkey’s rising star as a result of its emotional support for Palestine, its deteriorating relations with its erstwhile ally Israel, its perceived support for the Arab revolt, an impressive economic performance and the fact that it is ruled by an elected Islamist government. The Justice and Development Party (AK Party), despite its Islamist origins and appeal as well as a continued widespread perception of the party as Islamist, rejects this label, arguing that it has put its Islamist past behind it. However, the trio does not want Turkey’s ascendance to be at the expense of either the Kingdom or the Jewish state.
Turkey has so far largely been shielded from criticism that it, like the US, is seeking to maintain the status quo in the Gulf and has failed to match words with deeds in its condemnation of the Syrian regime’s brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters, one which has already cost more than 5,000 lives. The veil shrouding contradictions in Turkish -- as well as US, Israeli and Saudi -- policy could well soon be lifted, with Syria emerging as a crucial flashpoint in the mushrooming power struggle in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Increasingly it is looking like a matter of when rather than if the wave of protests truly spreads to the energy-rich Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia first and foremost among them.
The gradual morphing of the 11-month old Syrian protests into a civil war, much as was the case in Libya, leaves Turkey stuck between a rock and a hard place. With little appetite for military intervention despite its support of the revolt and warnings that there would be consequences if Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad failed to engage with his detractors and initiate political and economic reform, Turkey risks being perceived as a paper tiger. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu insisted Turkey was “ready for all possible scenarios” but had as yet not considered military intervention and didn’t want to. Similarly, he suggested that Turkey could create a military buffer zone within Syria, should tens of thousands of Syrians seek refuge in Turkey, all the while insisting that such a zone was “not on the agenda.” This reluctance to put its money where its mouth is from Turkey is not a stance it is likely to be able to maintain for much longer, with the failure of Arab League monitors in Syria, tightening economic sanctions and an Arab League-backed move to get UN Security Council endorsement of its call for al-Assad to step down.
Turkey could end up in the same boat as the US, which has seen its influence and credibility in MENA wane because of its inability to match its words with deeds. Despite its denunciations of al-Assad, Turkey has -- like the US -- remained silent on the need for change in the Gulf. Like the US it has a vested interest in ensuring that the revolt does not hit the region, Saudi Arabia in particular, with full force.
Consequently, the struggle of US President Barack Obama is one Turkey may well face. The US administration is finding it difficult to wield its influence in a region with a more assertive Arab public opinion, one demanding that Washington make good on its promises in terms of both the revolution and declared support for an independent Palestinian state.
Obama’s inability to do so, particularly in an election year, means that the US is finding it increasingly hard to perform its past balancing of diametrically opposed demands and expectations from its allies in the Middle East and North Africa. US support for the toppling of leaders like Egypt’s Gen. Hosni Mubarak has damaged its ties to key autocratic allies like Saudi Arabia, while the need to be seen to be make real steps in furthering Palestinian independence threatens to put it on a collision course with Israel.
Turkey’s potential policy dilemma is complicated by continued fallout from the 2010 killing by Israeli Special Forces of nine Turkish nationals aboard the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish aid ship seeking to run Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Israel imposed its naval blockade on Gaza after Hamas seized control of the territory in June 2007, with Tel Aviv saying it was necessary to prevent weapons being supplied to militants in the strip. Critics of the sea and land blockade describe it as collective punishment of Gaza’s 1.5 million inhabitants.
Turkey has painted itself into a corner with its refusal to reverse the downgrading of diplomatic relations with Israel to the level of second secretary and the suspension of all military cooperation. Ankara is adamant that these measures will continue as long as Israel fails to apologize or offer compensation for the death of the Turkish activists, and maintains its blockade of Gaza. Short term, Turkey’s attitude has garnered it popular support across the Arab and Muslim world, but longer term it has complicated Turkey’s efforts to shield itself from being drawn into the region’s multiple conflicts.
Turkey’s stance on Israel means it has little (if any) ability to bring Israel and Iran back from the brink of a military confrontation at a time that escalating tension between the two countries threatens to impair Turkey’s efforts to project itself as a regional Islamic, democratic, economic and military power.
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While Turkish defense and military officials have little doubt that Israel would prevail in a military confrontation with Iran, even if it is unlikely to fully destroy Iran’s decentralized and heavily fortified nuclear facilities, they worry that likely Iranian retaliatory attacks against Israel, as well as against US targets in the Gulf and Afghanistan, would escalate confrontation with Iran. As a result, members of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling AK Party have criticized him for responding emotionally to Israeli policies. While they remain critical of Tel Aviv, they have urged Erdoğan to repair relations with Israel in a bid to ensure that Turkey can truly act as a bridge across the West East divide as well as MENA’s fault lines. The key to Turkey’s role may indeed lie partially in Israel, but Turkey has only a limited window of opportunity to keep the door open as Western nations and Israel increasingly rattle their sabers.
In the event of a pre-emptive attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, any effort by Ankara to remain on the sidelines risks Turkey’s being portrayed in Tel Aviv and Washington as having not only turned on Israel -- often a yardstick in the West for assessing Turkish foreign policy -- but also sided with the enemy. Already Tehran eyes Ankara’s condemnation of al-Assad, as well as its mounting popularity in a swath of land stretching from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Gulf, with suspicion. Tehran views these developments as a US-Saudi conspiracy designed to prevent the Islamic Revolution of over 30 years ago getting the credit it deserves as an inspiration for the Arab revolt and to stymie the appeal of the Islamic republic for states in the turbulent region.
In a series of messages, Iranian leaders warned Turkey that Turkish support for an international campaign against Syria, the Islamic republic’s foremost Arab ally, and Syrian opposition groups would constitute a red line -- warnings Turkey has so far ignored. Without Syria, Iran would be left only with Iraq as its foremost interlocutor in the Arab world. Iraq lacks Syria’s relationship with groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine and is unlikely to be as compliant and strategic a friend as Syria is. Turkey compounded Iran’s narrowing options by not only setting its warnings aside but going a step further with its agreement to install on Turkish soil a NATO radar system believed to constitute a shield against Iranian ballistic missiles. In recent weeks, it has also started looking at reducing its dependence on imports of Iranian oil as Western powers crack down on Iran’s oil sales and the Islamic republic threatens to retaliate by closing the Strait of Hormuz. Turkey sought to soften the blow by suggesting that majority state-owned Halkbank would continue to handle Iranian oil payments as long as that does not run afoul of the sanctions regime.
Turkish officials and analysts fear that mounting tension with Iran could produce a covert proxy war, with Iran and Syria supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has stepped up attacks on Turkish military targets in the southeast of the country. Syria and Iran have already halted their security cooperation with Turkey with regard to the Kurds. Conservative Iranian columnists have denounced Erdoğan’s government in recent months as a Sunni Muslim dictatorship that does not represent half the country’s population -- a reference to Turkey’ large Kurdish and Alevi communities. They warned that Turkey’s minorities constituted its Achilles’ heel and a potentially destabilizing factor.
In a strange twist, Iranian football, pockmarked by nationalist and environmental protests in Iran’s East Azerbaijan Province, offers a perspective of how Turkey could respond in a proxy war with Syria and Iran -- one using ethnic minorities as pawns. The football protests in the Bagh Shomal and Yadegar-e-Emam stadiums in Tabriz, the capital of the province, signal a rise in Azeri nationalism. This trend would enable Turkey to exploit secessionist sentiments among its Turkic brethren in the predominantly Azeri East Azerbaijan Province, which borders the Turkic former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, a close Turkish ally.
In the latest football incident in Tabriz, fans of Tabriz football club Tractor Sazi Tabriz F.C. -- a focus of Iranian Azerbaijan’s identity politics owned by the state-run Iran Tractor Manufacturing Co. (ITMCO) -- wore shirts bearing Turkey and Azerbaijan’s flags and raised the latter emblem during a match against Fajr-e Sepasi F.C. of Shiraz. “ Iranian regime will charge them with separatism and even arrest them. The main is that the idea of Turkism is strengthening in South Azerbaijan,” Azeri news website news.az quoted Saftar Rahimli, a member of the board of the World Azerbaijanis Congress, as saying. Rahimli was referring to the East Azerbaijan Province by its nationalist Azeri name.
A conservative, pro-Iranian website, Raja News, confirmed the incident in November, charging that the football fans had employed “separatist symbols” and shouted separatist slogans during the match. Raja News accused the fans of promoting “pan-Turkish” and “deviant” objectives. It urged authorities to ban nationalist fans from entering football stadiums.
The protests during the match against the Shiraz-based club followed similar protests in September and October sparked by the Iranian parliament’s refusal to fund efforts to save the threatened Lake Orumiyeh and by anti-government protests in Tehran’s Azadi Stadium. The latter occurred both during last month’s 2014 World Cup qualifier against Bahrain and at a ceremony in May following the death of Nasser Hejazi, an internationally acclaimed Iranian defender and outspoken critic of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
A decision by security forces in early October to bar fans’ entry into the stadium during a match against Tehran’s Esteghlal sent thousands into the streets of Tabriz shouting “Azerbaijan is united!” and “Long live united Azerbaijan with its capital in Tabriz!” Scores were injured as security forces tried to break up the protest. Cars honking their horns choked traffic.
“Wherever Tractor goes, fans of the opposing club chant insulting slogans. They imitate the sound of donkeys, because Azerbaijanis are historically derided as stupid and stubborn. I remember incidents going back to the time that I was a teenager,” said a long-standing observer of Iranian football.
Mounting Iran-focused tension serves, at least in the case of Israel and Saudi Arabia, multiple purposes that go beyond the nuclear threat. It puts Turkey on the spot and shifts attention away from the wave of revolts sweeping MENA.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. This story first appeared in Turkish Review