Dissatisfied with the Arab Revolts' regime change score of two to four at the first half-year mark, US President Barack Obama is grimly determined to beat the rulers of Libya and Syria and send them packing – however long it takes. To overcome the formidable obstacles that keep on cropping up in the path of his plans to rearrange the Middle East, he has recruited Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan as his partner in pursuance of what the US president considers not just a policy but the fulfillment of his Middle East mission and vision.
Although on the face of it, he is treading in the footsteps of his predecessor, George W. Bush, who fought for regime change in Baghdad and Kabul, Obama's partnership with Erdogan represents an epic departure from US Middle East policy-making of the past 60 years: For the first time since the 1950s, Washington has eschewed the superpower prerogative of independent decision-making and roped in a regional collaborator for a joint effort.
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 490 of April 29 – A US-Turkey Axis Overrides the Arab Revolt – Obama Builds Strategic Understandings with Erdogan).
Erdogan's election victory this month lent the partnership gravitas although his parliamentary support declined.
The division of labor between Washington and Ankara, as confirmed in a phone conversation between Obama and Erdogan Tuesday, June 21 is summed up by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Washington and Ankara as follows:
Give diplomacy a chance first
The diplomatic option: The US and Turkish leaders agreed the deadly spiral in Syria and Libya could not be allowed to go on and both Bashar Assad and Muammar Qaddafi must go.
Diplomacy would first be given a real chance to negotiate terms for them to quit voluntarily. In search of accommodations acceptable to all sides, Washington would take on the Libyan ruler in Tripoli and the rebels in Benghazi – assisted by Germany, which opposed the NATO operation against Qaddafi, and Ankara would engage Assad in Damascus and the protest leaders in Syrian cities.
Turkey would also pitch in as broker in the Libyan conflict, calling in Persian Gulf emirates for help if necessary.
Only if diplomatic engagement failed over a reasonable period of time would Washington and Ankara turn to the military option.
The military option – Libya: Washington would then step in to bring the Libyan war to a quick end – and not only to save Europe and NATO from the ignominy of a lingering standoff against Qaddafi. Obama believes that the Libyan ruler's success combined with an impasse in President Assad's fight against dissent would stop the entire Arab Revolt project in its tracks and possibly kill it for good.
To keep the military option afloat, Obama this week ordered the buildup of US naval, air and marine forces in the central Mediterranean to continue. The American fleet, led by the USS George H. W. Bush aircraft carrier, was joined by two Marine strike units on the decks of the USS Bataan and USS Whidbey Island.
The US will handle Qaddafi's exit, leave Assad to Turkey
But then, Wednesday, June 22, just twenty four hours after Obama and Erdogan ended their phone conversation, their plan of action was thrown off-track by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's shock demand to halt hostilities in Libya immediately to allow humanitarian aid to reach civilians in Misratah and Tripoli.
Since Italy provides the bases as well as the command and logistical centers for most of NATO's air operations in Libya, its withdrawal is a major setback for the entire Libyan campaign. Its future role in US-Turkish planning therefore remains to be reformulated.
The Military Option – Syria: Part two of the US-Turkish strategy provides for both to resort to military action to oust the Libyan and Syrian leaders if they refuse to quit – with one big difference: US intervention would dispose of Qaddafi briskly, while Bashar Assad would be eased out when the time was right by means of a Turkish military incursion backed by US naval and air support and NATO ground forces based in Izmir.
In the intervening months, the two leaders agreed to ratchet up diplomatic pressure on the Assad regime and impose more sanctions.
Obama and Erdogan may have to retool some of these decisions and timetables in the light of the spanner Berlusconi has thrown into their plans.
Israel-Palestinian talks carried over to second Obama term
Israel-Palestinian talks postponed: The third decision the US president and Turkish prime minister reached earlier this week, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Washington reveal, was to carry this peace process over to Obama's second term. In other words, he is taking a long break from this intractable dispute until November 2012 at earliest, by which time he will know whether he has been reelected or not.
This decision was surprising. It was taken after US Special Envoy for Middle East Peace David Hale and Special Assistant to the President Dennis Ross returned from Jerusalem, Ramallah and Amman with the glad tidings that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas were now amenable to restarting the stalled negotiations.
Obama congratulated the two envoys and instructed them to go ahead with preparing a three-way summit for the ceremonial launch of talks – which would then be held in abeyance. The Turkish prime minister would then take over.
This decision was the upshot of two further agreements reached between President Obama and Prime Minister Erdogan:
1. Washington would leave Erdogan a clear field to try his hand as middleman between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Abbas. He would also explore the ground for bringing the two leaders together with Hamas's political secretary Khaled Meshaal.
It was no accident that Abbas and Meshaal both arrived in Ankara on the same day, Wednesday, June 22 – although Abbas flatly denied he knew about the Hamas leader's arrival in Turkey or had any plans to meet him Their rendezvous in Cairo a day earlier was cancelled.
Erdogan's jobs: to mend fences with Israel, co-opt Saudis to his mission
2. The Turkish prime minister undertook to patch up his quarrel with Israel. Relations broke down in May 2010 after Israeli commandos raided a Turkish vessel leading a flotilla aiming to bust Israel's blockade of Gaza and killed nine Turkish citizens. Now, Erdogan has promised to try and restore the strong military, strategic and intelligence bonds which bound Turkey and Israel for decades prior to the flotilla crisis.
Seen from the White House, this dramatic breakthrough to reconstituting the old alliance – if it can be achieved – would give America the vehicle for recovering positions of influence in the Middle East knocked over by the Arab Revolt. A US-Turkish-Israel bloc would also be a powerful lever for reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace track under the US aegis after Obama's return to the White House for a second term. Thursday, June 23, Erdogan received a personal envoy from Netanyahu, Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Yaalon, in Ankara.
Another important item of business was the decision for the Turkish prime minister to turn to Saudi Arabia and the GCC oil emirates for maximum cooperation in his diplomatic missions in the Middle East.
It is hoped in the White House that Erdogan will be able to soften some of the hard edges of Saudi-US relations and at the end of the road, by assuming his favorite position as mediator, act as bridge between the important Saudi-led Sunni Arab alliance and Washington.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources refer to the transformation of Ankara's role before and after the Arab Revolt –from aspiring US corridor to Tehran to mediator between Washington and the Arab rulers of the oil-rich Persian Gulf.
Erdogan may find his work cut out to achieve this last mission. Neither he nor the US president can be sure that Saudi King Abdullah and his fellow Gulf rulers will play along.