Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Old Strategies In A Renewing Middle East

By George Semaan
Until a few months ago and before the Arab spring, the neighboring regional superpowers, i.e. Israel, Iran and Turkey, were the biggest beneficiaries from the weakness and division of the Arab world and the impotence of its League. Their strategies were based on competition to fill the vacuum that was and will be created by the Arab absence and hibernation. But the situation has changed and the challenges generated by the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria and the action witnessed in more than one Arab community ought to force these powers to hasten the reassessment of their policies and adopt new methods and tools to remain in line with the new picture.
It was at the core of the Israeli strategy for the Arab world and the Islamic world from behind it to remain divided over it. In this context, the close ties it enjoyed with Ankara throughout decades, the Camp David agreement with Egypt and the Wadi Araba accord with Jordan achieved its main goal, as it secured some sort of reassurance and a balance of power on its western and eastern border. At the same time, it knew how to exploit these military and security gains on the political level, and this situation granted it a wide margin of freedom and stalling to dodge all the attempts deployed by the United States and Europe to settle the Palestinian issue.
However, the events seen during the last few months dealt a blow to this strategy. Peace with Jordan is tepid, if not cold, due to Palestinian and Jordanian considerations related to the storm sweeping the region in general and what is witnessed on the Jordanian scene itself in terms of an action that has not reached the level of a revolution as it is the case in other countries. As for the relationship with Egypt, it is going through unprecedented tensions, considering that the Israeli practices which used to be disregarded by President Hosni Mubarak’s regime for considerations related to the American aid and the relation with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Hamas movement can no longer be disregarded by the military council and the transitional government. In this context, the actions witnessed in Cairo following the fall of a number of Egyptian soldiers with the bullets of the Israeli army clearly conveyed the transformations affecting the positions, although they did not rise up to the level of freezing the peace agreement as it is being demanded by some forces. Moreover, the positions and statements condemning Israel are no longer a “mere merchandise” to please the domestic arena in Cairo and Amman as it used to be the case in the past, considering that the voice of the “youth” on the squares and the streets, as well as that of their forces and parties, can no longer be ignored.
The scene has changed, and if the Eilat operation were to be repeated – among others across the Israeli border – this would mean that the Hebrew state will face a major security predicament. Therefore, Netanyahu’s government tried and is still trying to exploit the massive commotion raised in Cairo following the death of the military men on the border to appease the “tents action” that has not yet calmed down, and turn the page of the heated conflict between the military and political elite over the defense budget, the building of the settlements, and the privileges enjoyed by their owners among all the other citizens. It will also try to exploit its “victory” over Turkey at the level of the Freedom Flotilla issue, although all the temporary accomplishments achieved by this government will be highly costly for the Hebrew state on the strategic level.
Both the Egyptian and Turkish developments must prompt the military institution to reconsider its entire security strategy, since Egypt and Turkey are no longer neutral. Indeed, Ankara ousted the Israeli ambassador and is preparing a strenuous judicial battle to lift the blockade imposed on Gaza. Hence, what the Freedom Flotilla failed to achieve might be accomplished by the international laws which the “Palmer Report” obviously did not take into consideration as much as it relied on Tel Aviv’s political stand. Furthermore, what was and is still being generated by the Arab Spring in terms of transformations affecting the Middle East and the overall interests and intertwining networks of relationships that have become a thing of the past with regimes that have already collapsed and the ones that followed them, also require reconsideration.
As for Turkey, which is nowadays mad about the “Palmer report,” it can claim that its zero-problem policy which was promoted by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu does not include Israel, knowing that its confrontation with Tel Aviv could increase the popularity of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Arab and Islamic worlds. This is happening at a time when Ankara did not sever its relations with Tel Aviv since the attack on the Marmara ship about a year and a half ago, while all that it wanted was an official Israeli apology. It is also known that at the time, Erdogan’s government contributed to the extinguishing of the fires which erupted in Carmel about a year ago, and this gesture should have restored some warmth at the level of bilateral relations.
Hence, the zero-problem policy did not work with Israel, and Turkey’s problems with its neighbors in the region are on the verge of bringing down all that was actively built by Turkish diplomacy throughout the past nine years. The relations with Syria are at their lowest and are prone to witness additional tensions. The same could be said about the relations with Iran which is confronting the pressures exerted by Ankara on its Damascene ally, at a time when the situation could escalate in light of Turkey’s hosting of an early warning radar as part of the NATO’s missile defense systems which are originally destined to obstruct Iranian missiles. NATO had approved this system months ago during the Barcelona summit, and while it will restore strategic consideration to Turkey as a key member in the alliance, its plans and systems, it is raising the disgruntlement of the Russian neighbor which always perceived that one of the goals of this shield was to tighten the siege around it. Indeed, Moscow is bearing in mind the major role played by Turkey during the days of the Cold War, back when it constituted a dam in the face of the expansion of the Socialist camp southward toward warm waters.
In the meantime, it is no secret that Turkey is as concerned as the Americans and non-Americans over stability in Iraq, which is not currently seen on the Iraqi arena. As a matter of fact, Western, Arab and Turkish circles are watching the renewed acts of violence with suspicion, and hinting to the fact that the fingers of the “rejectionist forces” are not that far away from the management of violence in the country. After all these “problems,” does the zero-problem policy not seem useless in ensuring the desired interests on the political, military, security and primarily the economic levels? Ankara did not win the “Marmara” battle internationally, and it does not seem to be about to win the battle with the Syrian people whose side it took in the face of the regime.
As for Iran, which seemed to be the biggest beneficiary of the American policy adopted by the neoconservatives during this last decade, it is trying hard not to become the biggest loser in the context of the powerful storm sweeping the region. It might now look better than Turkey and Israel, but the future of the situation in Syria will not be to its liking, regardless of the outcome of the open confrontation between the regime and its rivals. In this context, Tehran is not concealing its concerns toward the unfolding development in the Syrian cities and what is happening in the international forums – on the American and European levels – in terms of attempts to isolate the regime in Damascus. Moreover, it might not be pleased with what its allies in the Lebanese government are facing, whether at the level of the international tribunal looking into the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri or the threats to undermine Lebanese economy and banking and economic institutions if its government were to proceed with its “Syrian and Iranian policy,” both domestically and abroad.
On the other hand, Iran did not conceal its anger toward the deployment of the early warning radar on Turkish soil, and consequently issued fierce threats which increased the tensions affecting the relations between the two countries. These threats could also cause the Islamic Republic’s loss of a neighbor which always stood alongside it in regard to the nuclear file, and could constitute a wide economic and commercial passageway in light of the blockade imposed on it. And while Tehran is pleased with what it perceives as being the collapse of the “zero-problem” policy, the losses it could endure in the future will be graver. Indeed, its loss of Greater Syria after Turkey will force it to engage in a major battle in Iraq in the face of the United States and Iraq’s Gulf neighbors that are not happy about Iran’s tutelage over Baghdad’s policy and government.
-This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 05/09/2011
-George Semaan is a Lebanese journalist and the former editor-in-chief of al-Hayat

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