While the nation is focused on the Republican presidential nomination process and enters the 2012 election year, the world continues to turn and important events and changes will impose a steep learning curve on whoever the next president, including the incumbent, turns out to be. The new “Dear Leader” in North Korea still remains a virtual unknown, Russia's Vladimir Putin's new presidential ambitions are starting to show some cracks, and tensions between the civilian government and the military establishment in Pakistan could adversely effect the continuing war in Afghanistan.
However, it is in the Middle East where the “Arab Spring” revolutions have precipitated fundamental changes that are still in an evolutionary process, that the future is most unclear and the stakes the highest. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and in all probability, Syria, the downfall of authoritarian regimes has, or will soon, produce representative institutions and elected leaders. The process will be difficult and is unlikely to produce Western style liberal democracies. Tribal loyalties, religious identification and intolerance, the continued presence of privileged militaries, and the absence of any cultural experience with fundamental democratic concepts such as the role of the “loyal opposition”, an independent judiciary and the rule of law, protection of minorities, a free press, equality for women, and the creation of viable broad based political parties, will all present substantial challenges to transitional leaders. Thus the prospects for stable governance in these nations in the near future is problematic. The implications for regional stability and foreign relations among both regional states, and the major outside nations with important interests in the area are profound.
Three issues are currently of most concern and are likely to be affected by the uncertainty of the domestic political outcomes in the newly evolving goveRnments. These are the security of Israel which the U.S. has pledged to protect, and the stalemated Palestinian statehood issue; the on-going Iranian nuclear weapons program; and the stability dependent access to a significant portion of the world's oil supplies.
Prior to the “Arab Spring”, the Israeli-Palestinian problem was going nowhere but despite sporadic terrorism attacks, Israel was secure from large scale conflicts with Arab states because of peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. The looming security threat to Israel has become the nuclear weapons program and the related regional dominance ambitions of Iran. Syria, which shares a border with Israel has remained an intransigent foe and Iranian ally but by itself represented no direct threat. However, Iran has been determined to continue it's nuclear program in spite of a long term, slowly escalating process of economic sanctions led by the United States and Western Europe. The former authoritarian regimes in the region actually provided some stability as dictators pursued policies of self interest, which in the all important case of the then dominant power, Egypt, was supported by good relations with the U.S. and and an average over the last decade of $1.8 billion in annual aid, mostly military, under the terms of the 1979 Camp David Accords and subsequent peace treaty.
Now everything has changed. The new government in Egypt is going to be dominated by the two Islamist parties, the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salifi Nour Party representing the fundamentalist Salafi sect. In early public opinion polls, a majority of Egyptians were in favor of abrogating the peace treaty with Israel. A political struggle with the Egyptian military which is already underway, will no doubt continue as these parties are charged with drawing up a new constitution which will delineate the respective powers of the legislature, the military and the new president whose election is coming up. The constitution will also determine the extent that Islamic sharia law is part of the legal and cultural reality for Egyptian citizens. It is worthy of note that the more secular, liberal parties who played a significant role in the Tahir Square uprisings will be left out of this process by virtue of their poor showing in the legislative election. The settling of these issues will be a long term process and impose a significant level of uncertainty onto both domestic and regional politics.
Thus a regional power vacuum of sorts has developed with the new government in Iraq facing a difficult and violent sectarian divide, Iran finding itself under international pressure and increasing isolation, Syria in the throes of its own domestic uprising, Libya descending into tribal conflict, Yemen on the verge of its own internal struggle for political control, and Egypt distracted from regional affairs by its domestic divisions and power struggles.
There is much evidence that Turkey, under the guidance of its popular president Recep Tayyip Erdogan will attempt to step into the regional leadership void. Turkey in relative terms, is well positioned to seek such a leadership role. Although smaller than both Egypt and Iran geographically, its population is roughly the same as both (78-81 million) and the Turkish economy (GDP) is over three times the size of Egypt's which is currently struggling in the aftermath of the revolution. Turkey's economy is also more than one and a half the size of Iran's oil based economy and experiencing remarkable growth in the 8.5-9% range.
Such an initiative however contains several contradictions with respect to the interests of the West as well as the regional states. On the positive side, Turkey has long been regarded as a “Eurasian state” with borders on several southeastern European nations as well Syria, Iran, and Iraq. Thus, although it is an Islamic nation, it has a constitutional mandate that requires a secular government and an identity that does not fall completely into either the Middle East or Western categories. From the Western point of view, Turkey's membership in NATO and its expressed desire to join the European Union also draw a clear distinction with the more tribal and/or Islamic fundamentalist states in the region.
However, Turkey under Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) has adopted a more Islamic character while at the same time cracking down on political dissent, notably arresting numerous members of the press and recently, the former Chief of Staff of the military. This trend is part of an effort to achieve more credibility among the Islamic states in terms of foreign policy. The Erdogan government also supported the attempt by a Turkish ship with pro-Palestinian activists on board to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. This attempt resulted in a battle between the activists and Israeli commandos who boarded the vessel and led to several deaths among the activists. Turkey demanded an apology from the Netanyahu government in Israel which was rejected and which has resulted in a break of diplomatic relations between the two nations.
On the new issue of the anti-government uprising in Syria, Turkey has changed its position of backing the Assad regime and now supports the Arab League's demand for observers in Syria and an end of the government's harsh repressive measures against the protestors. This change of position is no doubt part of an assessment that the Assad regime will eventually fall, and also part of the effort to identify with the pro-democracy dynamic of the region while at the same time supporting the positions of the remaining autocratic regimes in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states who are members of the Arab League.
Perhaps the most difficult relationship for a regional leadership seeking Turkey will be the one with Iran. Turkey and Iran have a long history of cooperation, especially in trade. And until recently Turkey appeared to distance itself from the West in this respect. In the early stages of Iran's nuclear development efforts, while the U.S. and Europe started an escalating policy of economic sanctions over Iran's refusal to allow UN (IAEA) inspection of it's nuclear facilities, Turkey sided with Iran. As tensions grew, Turkey and Brazil negotiated a nuclear fuel swap program with Iran intended to keep high grade fissionable material out of Iran's control but provide them with the type of fuel necessary for electrical production. When this deal fell through, the West pushed enhanced economic sanctions.
Turkey is now essentially a competitor with Iran for regional influence. By turning against the Assad regime in Syria, which is Iran's main Arab ally and a conduit for Iranian arms shipments to its client, the anti-Israeli Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, Erdogan has taken an important step in changing the perception by the U.S. and European governments that he had focused his foreign policy away from the West and towards the Islamic nations of the Middle East. He has further alienated Iran by agreeing to the construction in Turkey of early-warning systems which are intended to defend Europe from Iranian medium range missiles. Iran claims that these sites are intended to warn Israel of a retaliatory strike should Israel bomb Iran's nuclear facilities and has threatened to attack them if Israel launches such an attack.
Thus, Turkey is engaged in a delicate balancing act in its pursuit of a more aggressive leadership position in the Middle East. To do this it seeks to reemphasize its Islamic identity while protecting its secular image with the West and its institutional ties with NATO and the European Union. The result has been a calculation based on strategic and economic reasoning to tilt away from its rival for influence, Iran, which is experiencing virtual political and economic isolation, and fill the political void left by the changes in “Arab Spring” governments. Turkey may well become one of the most important players on the Middle East stage with which the U.S. should seek to develop a closer diplomatic and strategic relationship.