Iran is the Wild Card in the Arab awakening, but what about Turkey?

Both Turkey and Iran play vital roles in bringing peace to their immediate neighborhoods — and ideally, they’d also have a relationship with the West. Yet the crisis in Syria has put each of them in a difficult position.

The regime of Bashar al-Assad may survive this threat, and the Syrian regime may quash the protests and kill many this week. But unlike their counterparts in Libya, Syrian anti-government protestors are alone in their fight. It’s nearly impossible to conceive that the Arab League would call upon the international community to intervene in Syria, which, according to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, is necessary to legitimize any military action.

The Arab League’s back-and-forth on Libya created real confusion about its position on the situation in the region — and leaders in both the United States and Europe may find it impossible to persuade their governments and their citizens to engage in yet another war in a Muslim country. Given the criticism that both President Obama and French President Sarkozy are facing over how they proceeded with the use of force, the Libyan intervention may only serve to hide the problems of economic hardship on both sides of the Atlantic.

If Assad calculates that the West is tied up and decides to turn on his own people, it will only boost hatred toward his regime and aggravate the threat of a full-scale civil war. But Iran is the wild card in this Arab Awakening — and Syria is the one country that can lessen Iran’s influence in the region. But the international community may have already played its card in Libya, limiting its options for ending the Assad regime. As long as Assad remains in power, Iran’s position in the region will only become stronger. If and when the Syrian leadership changes, it won’t be a zero-sum game in its relationship with Iran and other radicals of the region. But the level of intimacy between Damascus and Tehran will change, and that will have huge implications for organizations like Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad.

Although the Arab League represents majority Sunni leadership and fears Iran’s growing influence, they have different interests. For example, Lebanese Sunni leader Saad Hariri might be the first to celebrate the end of the Assad era. He was recently forced out of his position as prime minister because he did not want to give up the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which investigated his father’s assassination six years ago. The tribunal is expected to hold Assad’s government and Hezbollah responsible of Rafik Hariri’s death. When the Syrian leader steps down, the Tribunal will have more freedom to make the announcement.

Yet Hariri also played Turkey against Iran when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a show with Hezbollah at the Israeli-Lebanon border. Soon after Ahmadinejad’s visit to Lebanon, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan was invited to Beirut — where he was welcomed by thousands like an “Ottoman Sultan.” Many in the Arab world see Erdogan as a balance to the rising Shia influence. They welcome his strong criticism of Israel, which breaks from the past Turkish leadership. To some, Erdogan is proof that Turkey is not a Western nation and has no place in European Union.

Building up Turkey’s “Sunni” identity is merely a ploy to draw Turkey and Iran into a fight. The Erdogan government’s “zero problem with neighbors policy” was unrealistic at best, but now Turkey must not intervene in Syria’s domestic affairs. Over the weekend, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates admitted that “regime change is a complicated thing.” Turkey could call on Syria to make good on its promises of economic and social reform in the face of growing unrest, but Erdogan’s priority has to be keeping any conflict from spilling over into Turkey. Despite the Turks’ growing unease with the West, Turkey has benefited a lot from its membership in NATO and its relationships with the United States and European Union countries.

Erdogan’s government, however, represents the first Turkish leadership in a post-Cold War, post-9/11 era. Past Turkish leaders, too, engaged in demagogy and criticized the West, but Turkey’s orientation with respect to the West was never in doubt as it is today. The reason: Erdogan’s skill with both politics and rhetoric are unmatched in the present context.

Erdogan opposed NATO intervention in Libya — before he was for it. “What has NATO got to do in Libya?” he asked. Now, however, Turkey is making the largest contribution to the NATO mission — with four frigates, a submarine and an auxillary warship to enforce the arms embargo off Libya. Erdogan was against using any bullets against Libyans, but that was before NATO agreed to protect the civilian anti-government protesters against Qaddafi’s forces. In fact, NATO member countries may question why Turks play the religion card each time it’s tested and don’t participate in NATO combat missions in Libya or in Afghanistan. Finally, Erdogan opposed any Western intervention in Libya because, “I wish that those who only see oil, gold mines, and underground treasures when they look in [Libya’s] direction, would see the region through glasses of conscience from now on,” he said. He also conveniently misspoke about Turkey’s financial interests in Libya.

This demonstrates a pattern in Erdogan’s thinking, and confuses the perception about where Erdogan really wants the country to end up. The prime minister’s dislike of French President Sarkozy could hurt Turkey’s interests. The French were careful to move military operations under the NATO control, and now the alliance will oversee the aerial operations at its Izmir base. Although the Iraq war was not a NATO mission, Turks made it clear that they would not allow foreign troops to invade their neighbors via Turkish land.

In the end, although it is unlikely that there will be a NATO operation against the Syrian regime, Turkey may be cornered into deciding to continue aerial operations control in Izmir for the Syrian operation. And Erdogan may flip once again, though Sarkozy may not give him an easy exit this time out. It also raises the possibility that Turkey’s NATO membership could be called into question.

It will be a real problem if Assad’s regime survives the threat to its power, and if Turkey continues to do business with them — as usual. It will paint Turkey as moving even closer to the Iran-Syria-Hamas-Hezbollah leadership, which only stands for anti-American, anti-Western and anti-Israeli. On the other hand, it’s also clear that Assad’s era is nearing an end.

The Syrians will determine what happens to Assad — and while that is figured out, it’s crucial that Turkey not get involved in the fight. The West can’t give Turkey anything to sell out Assad, or to make things work against him. Turks have tried in the past to negotiate between the Syrians and Israelis, and while they thought it would drive a wedge between Syria from Iran, they just moved closer. Turkey should learn from that experience. Erdogan’s priority has to be keeping any conflict from spilling over into Turkey.

Categories: Huffington Post