America’s policy in the Middle East over the last ten years has been haphazard, to say the least. But, perhaps, at present US policy in the region is more mystifying than ever, leading to fears that Trump may cave in to Turkey and lead the region in a further spiral of instability.
By Efthimios Tsiliopoulos
Turkey’s disruptive role
The reluctance with which the Obama administration viewed any US commitments in the Middle East, and in general foreign affairs, left enough room for regional players to try and assert their dominance, destabilizing so-called “secular” regimes, establishing proxy armies, ethnic and religious militias, and terrorist organizations.
The competition for dominance among the Islamic world has spread, within the last decade, to the Arabian peninsula, the Mahreb, the Horn of Africa and the surrounding areas, across the Middle East with tentacles all the way to the Indian subcontinent, by way of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
This decade old slug-fest has seen realignments and shifting of focus among the players. During this time it became clear that one of the key players in this game of destabilization was Turkey, which in the guise of protecting Sunni Muslims (over whom it exercised a terrible rule for more than six centuries) fomented Jihadist armies and succored fundamentalist movements across the whole area mentioned, and even as far away as China (where it stirred up Uyghur Muslims). In these efforts Turkey was aided by the ubiquitous “Muslim Brotherhood”.
During this time Turkey administered funds and weapons for groups destabilizing the area from a multitude of sources that changed over time. Some of these sources, like Qatar, have been more persistent than others. This was because at the beginning of the period, many in the West saw it as an opportunity to be rid of “unsavory” regimes like Syria’s Assad.
In doing so, Turkey, if it did not directly set up Jihadist terrorist groups, it certainly aided and abetted their nefarious role. The emergence of ISIS (ISIL, Daesh), in late 2004, as a splinter group of Al Qaeda, was in large part bolstered by weapons distributed by Turkey and funded through Turkey’s facilitations in trade with the Islamic State regime, in stolen oil, looted artifacts, etc. ISIS fighters travelled freely in Turkey, as did recruits, while the wounded from the fighting received treatment in Turkish hospitals. These same privileges are currently extended by Turkey to other groups which are included in its stable of mercenaries, in Syria and Iraq.
The more active involvement of the Trump administration initially showed vigor in supporting the Kurds in northeastern Syria, even though they have reached a modus vivendi with the Assad regime and its patron, Russia. This was cause for grief with Turkey, which has launched a series of attacks with its own means as well as proxies and mercenaries, in Syria, in an attempt to strangle the Kurds and stifle any hopes of any form for an independent, or autonomous, Kurdish entity that would cause problems among Turkey’s oppressed Kurds.
Meanwhile, Turkey reached out to Moscow, in efforts to bolster its defenses, resulting in the well-known S-400 vs F-35 saga, which pitted Erdogan against the US. And this after Turkey had downed a Russian aircraft on the border with Syria. Erdogan had also blamed the so-called coup against him on the United States, and self-exiled Imam Fetullah Gulen.
Trump’s wavering resolve
For some time the world was of the impression that US-Turkish relations were at loggerheads with threats of military escalation in Syria, which would find the two countries’ forces pitted against each other. Meanwhile, circles among lawmakers and the Trump aministration have been clamoring for some sort of measures against Turkey, especially after the receipt of the first S-400 components this last spring. However, Donald Trump has always watered down any such messages towards Turkey.
Despite conflicting interests in terms of Turkey’s illegitemate claims to east Med hydrocarbon rsources, that have troubled the establishment in Wshington and their allies, Trump has remained relatively aloof.
Now, the Turks are pressuring for a “security” zone and it seems that the Trump administration is willing to cave in to such demands. Obviously this has raised the alarm among Kurds, as well as the Syrian regime, and Moscow.
Assad’s and Russia’s renewed and very bloody efforts in Idlib and Hama are an indication that they want to reconquer the areas under the control of Turkey’s proxies, and reverse the efforts Turkey has made to alter the ethnic composition of the area.
In just a few weeks, the scenery has changed vastly. Moscow is now warning Turkey about its role in Syria, and the love affair between Erdogan and Putin seems to have been fleeting and based on common enemies, rather than common goals.
This volte-face was to be expected, but one could not have expected it so quickly. Moscow’s axis with Tehran certainly pits Iran against Turkey for the role of dominant regional power. Despite the fact that Iran is the only Shiite majority nation within the Islamic world, the country boldly influences Shiite minorities in many countries in the vicinity, with major proxies in Lebanon, Yemen, of course, Syria, and most recently Libya.
At this time, issues in Syria are still precarious. We will have to wait and see if a “security”zone is established and how Turkey will behave if it does. Meanwhile, any backing down vis-a-vis Erdogan will embolden his already “Bonapartist” dreams of extending his influence and power. This, in turn, will pose risks and threats against Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, and the Gulf States. The Saudi Kingdom has also to be on its guard from someone who wants to again become the mainstay of Sunni Islam. Erdogan always fondly recalls the times when the Ottomans were the keepers of the Faith and the guardians of the Holy Sites.
In any case, there is much to worry about and very little to look forward to.