The Middle East’s new game

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MADRID: Whether or not the Arab Spring will usher in credible democracies across the Arab world remains uncertain. But, while the dust has not yet settled after months of turmoil in Tunis, Cairo, and elsewhere, the Arab revolts have already had a massive impact on the strategic structure of the Middle East.

Until recently, the region was divided into two camps: an incoherent and weakened moderate Arab alignment, and an “Axis of Resistance,” formed by Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah, against American and Israeli designs for the region. Driven by a strategy of “zero problems” with its neighbors,” Turkey’s quest for a leading role in Middle East politics brought it closer to Syria and Iran.

The Arab Spring exposed the fragile foundations upon which the entire Axis of Resistance was built, and has pushed it to the brink of collapse. The first to opt out was Hamas. Fearful of the consequences of the demise of its patrons in Damascus, Hamas tactically withdrew from the Axis and let Egypt lead it towards reconciliation with the pro-Western Palestinian Authority on terms that it had refused under former Egyptian Hosni Mubarak.

Turkey is genuinely interested in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and in a regional system of peace and security, whereas Iran and Hezbollah are bent on derailing both in order to deny Israel the kind of peace with the Arab world that would end up isolating Iran. Notwithstanding its bitter conflict with Israel, Turkey, unlike Iran, is not an unconditional enemy of the Jewish state, and would not discard an accommodation with Binyamin Netanyahu’s government. Indeed, talks are now under way between the parties to restore more normal relations.

Nor do Iran and Turkey share a common vision with regard to the strategically sensitive Gulf region. Turkey, whose 2008 treaty with the Gulf Cooperation Council made it a strategic partner of the region’s monarchies, was unequivocally assertive during the Bahrain crisis in warning Iran to cease its subversive intrusion into the region’s affairs. The stability and territorial integrity of the Gulf States is a strategic priority for Turkey; that is clearly not the case for Iran.

Similarly, when it comes to Lebanon, Turkey certainly does not share Iran’s concern about the possible interruption of Hezbollah’s lifeline should the Syrian regime collapse. And Iran and Syria, for their part, have never been too happy with Prime Minister’s Recep Tayyip Erdo?an’s aspirations to act as a broker in Lebanon, which they consider to be their strategic backyard. This explains Hezbollah’s rejection of a Turkish-Qatari initiative to act as mediators after the fall of Saad Hariri’s Lebanese government in January 2011.

Turkey’s commitment to peaceful democratic transitions in the Arab world has alienated it from its Syrian ally, Bashar Al-Assad — with whose repressive practices both Iran and Hezbollah are fully complicit — and is now driving Iran and Turkey even further apart. Iran is working to ensure that free elections open the way to truly Islamic regimes in the Arab world, while Turkey assumes that its own political brand, a synthesis of Islam and democracy with secular values, should ultimately prevail.

The rift reflects not only ideological differences, but also disagreement about the objective of regime change. Iran expects the new regimes to rally behind it in radically changing the region’s strategic equation through a policy of confrontation with the US and Israel, while Turkey expects the new regimes to follow constructive policies of peace and security.

Instability and confusion in the Arab world serve the agenda of a radically non-status quo power such as Iran. Instability has the potential to keep oil prices high, benefiting the Iranian economy. Moreover, with the West focused on the formidable challenges posed by the Arab revolts, Iran finds it easier to divert the world’s attention from its nuclear program, and to circumvent the international sanctions regime designed to curtail its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.

Turkey’s foreign policy, unlike Iran’s, needs a stable environment to prosper. Instability undermines its entire regional vision; it certainly challenges its idealistic strategy of “zero problems.” It also puts at risk Turkey’s robust economic penetration into Arab markets. And, with the Kurdish problem as alive as ever, the Turks also know only too well that upheavals in neighboring countries can spill over into Turkey itself.

It is on the Syrian question that the differences between Turkey and Iran are especially apparent. Turkey has practically resigned itself to the inevitable demise of Syria’s repressive Baath regime. For Iran and its Hezbollah clients, the fall of Assad would be nothing short of a calamity — one with far-reaching consequences. Devoid of its Syrian alliance and estranged from Turkey, Iran would become an isolated revolutionary power whose fanatical brand of Islam is repellent to most Arab societies.

Turkey was wrong to try to gain wider influence in the Middle East by working with the region’s revolutionary forces. It is far wiser for Turkey to make common cause with the region’s responsible forces.

A democratic Egypt would certainly be a more reliable partner. Egypt has already managed to draw Hamas away from Syria into an inter-Palestinian reconciliation. Instead of competing for the role of regional power broker, as was the case under Mubarak, Egypt can join forces with Turkey — whose officials the Egyptians wisely invited to the ceremony that sealed the Palestinian reconciliation — to promote an Israeli-Arab peace and a civilized security system in the Middle East.

Shlomo Ben Ami is a former Israeli foreign minister who now serves as vice-president of the Toledo International Center for Peace. He is the author of “Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.” This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with Project Syndicate,


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