One of the most earth-shaking events in the turbulent Middle East landscape is only just beginning to emerge. Alongside the thunder of the NATO war on Libya and the tanks and guns Syrian President Bashar Assad is using to shoot down a people's uprising against his regime, US President Barack Obama has spent the last few weeks quietly cultivating a personal and strategic partnership with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources in Washington, the two leaders share the conviction that together they can come up with a coherent policy for shaping the Middle East.
Obama believes that working with Erdogan will be productive for the following reasons:
1. Turkey is a stable democracy close to the Western political model. The current revolts against autocratic Arab regimes and police states in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria are not expected to transform those countries into democracies overnight or at any time in the foreseeable future.
For now, the picture propagated to the public in the West and around the world is of liberal young Arabs earnestly fighting tyrannical regimes for freedom, democratic reforms and a better life. This image is bound to blur in the next year or two – certainly by the time the US President is campaigning for re-election in 2012. Some of the troubled Arab nations are widely expected to end up swinging toward fundamentalist Islam. (Egypt's liberals who led the anti-Mubarak uprising received a bad shock this month when in a popular referendum on constitutional reforms 77 percent backed the Muslim Brotherhood's call for swift elections and opposed the postpone demanded by the liberals. See a separate article in this issue on Egypt.)
Filling Egyptian shoes in Washington
Looking ahead, Obama is prudently coordinating his policies with the head of a moderate, Western-oriented, democratic Muslim power which is moreover a member of NATO and capable of counteracting the emerging radicalism. The US president would also be saved from going into an election campaign haggling directly with the often extremist political entities rising and falling in the ever-shifting Middle East landscape – for whose instability the American voter may hold him to account.
2. Contemporary Turkey is viewed by Obama as a fit successor to Egypt, America's foremost Middle East ally for three decades since Richard Nixon and Anwar Sadat reached a secret military and intelligence-sharing pact in 1971. That alliance held up under subsequent US presidents until Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in February 2011
As seen by Obama, working with the Erdogan government today offers Washington both military and economic advantages:
3. Turkey has the biggest, most powerful and modern Muslim army in the Middle East as well as being NATO's only Muslim full member. It was therefore essential to pull Ankara behind the alliance's military operation in Libya. After his initial resistance, Erdogan relented when Washington insisted that a US-Turkish axis would stand or fall on this issue. He is now an enthusiastic fan of the campaign and has joined the call for Muammar Qaddafi's banishment.
On Monday, April 25, after Obama and Erdogan talked by phone, they issued a statement calling on the Libyan ruler to step down and "depart Libya permanently in order for there to be a lasting solution that reflects the will of the Libyan people."
(See the next item about Obama administration's ambition to revive the military alliance between Turkey and Israel.)
Economically strong enough to aid Egypt's economic recovery
4. Turkey is a burgeoning economic power commanding substantial financial resources which it is willing to invest in building itself up as a regional superpower.
The transitional military government which now rules Egypt is struggling with an inflation rate running at 18 percent and food prices soaring over 50 percent. Subsidies poured out to tame runaway food and energy prices have brought the budget into a 12 percent deficit as foreign reserves fall.
Beset by its own economic troubles, Washington cannot afford to bail Egypt out and rebuild its economy.
But Ankara can.
This could be Turkey's big chance to manage investments in Egypt in such a way as to win a vast market of 90 million consumers, a nice feather in Erdogan's cap if he can pull it off.
5. The Obama administration has concluded that Saudi-US relations are for the moment beyond repair (see DEBKA-Net-Weekly 489 of April 15: Washington and Riyadh Agree to Disagree). With Riyadh determined to strike out on an independent course, Washington expects that the Saudis will go it alone on most regional issues at best, and, at worst, take a line contrary to US policies.
Therefore, America's two oldest Middle East allies, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are write-offs for the Obama administration with Turkey chosen to fill their shoes.
Riyadh was not restored to Washington's good graces even after it chalked up success in bringing the Yemen conflict to a successful conclusion.
Compared with US and European efforts in other arenas, the Saudis working through the Gulf Cooperation Council managed to broker an orderly transfer of power and the departure of President Abdullah Ali Saleh in favor of a unity government with a place for the opposition. An accord was to have been signed by all the parties Wednesday, April 27.
Obama reaches out to Tehran via Ankara
4. The Obama administration considers the Tehran-Damascus-Ankara-Hizballah bloc has fallen into disarray and opened up a unique opportunity for detaching Turkey permanently from this radical alliance and bringing it into the American orbit.
Ankara is viewed as the ideal channel through which to resume diplomatic engagement with Tehran on their nuclear controversy. While not losing hope of direct dialogue with Iran, Obama is pinning much hope on the strong personal ties Erdogan and his foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu developed with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
US CIA chief Leon Panetta spent an unusually long five days in Ankara in the second week of April, during which Turkish officials told him that one of the triggers of the current feud between the Iranian president and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni (more about which in a separate item) is the former's willingness to take up the Turkish route for fresh negotiations with Washington.
Some of the Turkish media which covered the visit Tuesday, April 25, reported that Panetta's discussions in Ankara focused on coordinating US-Turkish steps in Syria. But DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report that Syria was just one topic of discussion; the CIA chief and his hosts worked on setting up a joint framework for the new alliance with the accent on political coordination and intelligence-sharing between Washington and Ankara.
Assad ignores Erdogan's advice to hold back his army
However the Assad regime's resort to military measures for suppressing opposition underlined the difficulties confronting full US-Turkish understanding on the handling of Middle East crises. Damascus was to have been the key arena in which Washington expected Ankara to act on its behalf. One high-ranking American official told our Washington sources this week that the US president asked the Turkish prime minister to place President Bashar Assad's feet on the right course. This meant holding him back from loosing all of Syria's eleven tank divisions against the Syrian protesters.
Last Thursday, April 21, Erdogan gave the White House an optimistic report on the chances of averting military action with Assad leaning toward heeding advice from Turkey to hold the army back.
Friday, the Turkish leader reported that Assad had indeed delayed his final order to the army – although military movements had been detected.
But then on Sunday, April 24, Syrian tanks and troops rolled forward into protest centers, illustrating the grave limitations of the US-Turkish partnership for influencing the course of events.
With Assad refusing to heed Erdogan and both Qaddafi and Libyan rebel leaders brushing off Turkish mediation, Obama's new diplomatic axis with Ankara as a mover and shaker in Middle East affairs needs a lot more work to prove its effectiveness.