Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan's relentless drive to lead Turkey to superpower status in the Middle East for the second time in two centuries has brought him to the threshold of a threefold historic dilemma, DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports.
1. To achieve this status, he must lead a group of nations which defer to Ankara. So where to start? Should he try and whip the Arab nations of Egypt, Syria and the Palestinians into line behind Turkey, or go for the extremist Iran, Syria, the Lebanese Hizballah and the Palestinian Hamas in Gaza?
Both would be ranged against the United States and intrinsically anti-Israel. In either case, they would be introduced to the world at first as economic associations.
2. Erdogan has set his face finally to jettisoning Turkey's diplomatic ties with Israel, but has still to fix a date. The cutoff of bilateral ties has begun and promises to be comprehensive, casting aside economic, shipping, economic, tourist relations and ditching the last remnants of the military cooperation built up in decades of friendship. Wednesday, Ankara announced 16 bilateral agreements had been shelved. Turkish President Abdullah Gul disclosed that a plan for further sanctions was in the works and would be implemented in stages.
(More about this in HOT POINTS of June 17 below)
Diplomatic severance appears to have been left to the last stage, depending on which Muslim bloc Ankara decides to promote.
Campaign against Israel as key to sway over Muslim world
Many circles in Ankara, including military leaders, are strongly opposed to the rupture of ties with Israel which have brought benefits to Turkey in many fields, but DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Ankara confirm that Erdogan’s mind is made up. Judging from his past behavior, opposition does not put him off and he will make good on his decisions even if he has to go it alone – especially with regard to Israel. He sees his antagonism towards the Jewish state as the key to sway over the Muslim community of nations.
3. Theoretically, there is, of course, a third way. For years, the Turkish prime minister has coveted the role of bridge between the various Middle Eastern peoples, such as Arab and Iranian, as well as East and West, Europe and the United States, Christendom and Islam. This task he sees as conferring great influence and high prestige.
Our Mideast sources call option No.3 “theoretical” for, despite Erdogan’s efforts, the role of mediator and bridge builder has mostly eluded him and, according to their information, he is impatient to move on from talk to decisions.
Ankara discounts Turkey’s membership of NATO as a factor in judging the first two options. For the third, it might be marginally beneficial.
Wheeling and dealing for Cairo's auspices
Erdogan's secret envoys have spent the past week in Egypt trying to talk its leaders round into convening an early Turkish-Arab summit with the promise of a broad and glittering attendance that would include Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, Syrian President Bashar Assad, Jordan's King Abdullah, and all the Palestinian leaders – Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, his bitter rival Hamas political secretary Khaled Meshal and Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Abdullah Salah.
The minor Arab rulers would be swept up in their train.
Erdogan's messengers offer Cairo three arguments:
A. In the current international climate of condemnation for Israel, the pro-Turkish, pro-Arab elements in the Obama administration and Europe will prevail over the pro-Israeli lobbies and persuade Washington and Brussels to welcome a vibrant new Middle East entity dedicated to opposing Israel.
B. "We and the Arabs are a hundred times more important than Israel," the Turks explain "and the US and Europe will be forced to deal with us on our terms."
C. Assad's participation in this summit, to which Iran will not be invited, will mark the first crack in the Damascus-Tehran alliance, thus restoring Egypt to its proper position in the region and at the head of diplomacy for resolving the Palestinian question.
The fourth argument was unspoken but well understood, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East sources. Turkey does not want to see Iran attain a nuclear bomb any more than Egypt and the rest of the Arab world. But since nothing is happening to stop the Islamic Republic's inexorable drive toward this objective, Erdogan maintains that the Arab-Sunni Muslim world's best defense against a nuclear-armed Iran would be a strong Arab alliance led by Turkey and Egypt.
Checking the options in Damascus
While one group of Erdogan's envoys lobbies Egyptian leaders, a second is busy in Damascus.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources, this second group is charged with exploring with Assad and the Lebanese Hizballah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah – and through them with Tehran – the chances of establishing a Turkish-Arab-Iranian lineup as an alternative to the Turkish-Egyptian-led formation.
There, too, a theatrical summit is under discussion. It would bring Turkish, Arab, Iranian and Palestinian leaders together in the Syrian capital.
Should the Damascus track beat out the Cairo option, our Middle East analysts conclude, it would bring Erdogan back to the Iranian-Syrian fold. Since the flotilla incident of May 31, the Turkish prime minister and his spokesman have made great play of Iran's ineffectiveness on the Palestinian front compared with Ankara's activism. There was a suggestion that relations of rivalry were developing between Ankara and Tehran.
Before then, the Syrian ruler gained prominence by leading a Third World front against the American initiative for tough UN sanctions against Iran.
The two alternative postures indicate that the Turkish prime minister is at a critical crossroads. Whichever course he chooses, their most striking common factor is the zero value he attaches to the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel as players in his schemes. Ankara, Cairo, Damascus and Tehran are putting their heads together as though the United States counts for very little in the region and Israel for even less.
(Separate articles in this issue discuss the impact of Obama's muscle-flexing moves in the region and Israeli leaders' heedlessness of happenings in its neighborhood).