Ensuring security, controlling energy resources and protecting Israel are major strategic goals of the United States in the Middle East. If achieved, they will pave the way for US' supremacy over its traditional and emerging rivals.
During the Cold War and following US failures in Southeast Asia, Korea and Vietnam, Washington tried to achieve those goals by forming regional alliances and giving active role to a powerful regional ally. Conclusion of such treaties as Baghdad (CENTO) and bolstering Iran's role as regional gendarme could be explained along the same lines.
Following the Islamic Revolution and invasion of Afghanistan by the former Soviet Union, US strategic interests were faced with a major challenge. Increased resistance from Iran and the threat of dominating the Persian Gulf oil resources by the Soviet Union made the United States change its tactics. Instigating Iraq to attack Iran and providing unbridled support for the Baathist regime during the Imposed War in addition to backing Afghan mujahedeen against the Soviet army with the help of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were examples of new tactics.
After termination of the Cold War, expulsion of Russian troops from Afghanistan and subsequent implosion of the Soviet Union, the United States became an unrivaled power which supposed it could defend its worldwide interests single-handedly. Therefore, new US Middle East policy unraveled fast. Iraq's invasion of Kuwait provided Washington with a golden opportunity to play the role it dreamed of. Finally, the United States' interventionist policy reached its acme following 9/11 with military occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Since that time, however, the realities on the ground have proved that the US power is stalled by with many restraints in the region and unilateralism cannot continue for long. The Middle East is actually the starting point and finishing line of US unilateral policy. American statesmen experienced the bitter taste of defeat right in the same region which had helped them savor victory.
For the American statesmen, reduced ability of Washington to influence Middle Eastern developments has offered a complicated challenge on the way of designing an efficient Middle East strategy. The United States had enough power to protect its regional interests without caring for balance of power between Iran and Iraq from 1991 to 2006.
Before that, Washington sought to establish a desirable balance of power between Iran and Iraq by first supporting the former Iranian Shah and then backing Iraq in its war against Iran during 1980s. From early 1990, however, forceful expulsion of the Iraqi army from Kuwait and disintegration of the Soviet Union completed the US dominance over the region. The Clinton Administration was able to pursue its interests without caring much about balance of power between Iran and Iraq. The dual containment policy could be tolerated and Clinton was greatly successful in both isolating Iran and Iraq, and forging a peace deal between Arabs and Israelis.
After Clinton's term ended, the Republican Bush changed course in favor of unilateralism. However, final failure of Bush in changing the region through regime change or democratization brought US under tremendous pressures from three sides.
Firstly, collapse of the Iraqi government in the war with the United States clearly changed the balance of power in favor of Iran at a time that Washington claimed invincibility of its policies and universality of its values.
Secondly, US emphasis on democracy would lead to election of anti-US governments and faced Washington's policy with a theoretical paradox. Popularity of Islamist parties such as Muqtada Sadr in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine practically invigorated the policy of resistance in those countries without giving any support to political groups advocating Western liberalism.
The aforesaid parties and groups, which were more organized than rivals, made the most of election mechanism to keep their main cadres intact and promote anti-American messages which also targeted US' lackey regimes in the region. So, they succeeded to erode the influence of West-dependent political groups in Iraq and Lebanon as well as the Palestinian Authority while promoting their own agendas.
The third issue is inattention to Arab-Israeli peace accord by the United States which played an essential role in election of Hamas. Withdrawal of Israel from parts of the occupied territories further strengthened the claim of Hamas and Hezbollah that resistance was the best way to get concessions from Israel. This subsequently undermined Palestine Liberation Organization because it pursued negotiations with Israel on a two-state solution.
The United States' endless problems in Afghanistan and Iraq; increased resistance pivoted around Iran, especially in Lebanon and Palestine; economic brunt of war; expansion of domestic dissatisfaction; and Arab world uprisings with possible loss of traditional allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia have put the United States at a difficult situation. Undoubtedly, soft and hard power sources of Washington will not be able to help it weather the existing dire straits by keeping up unilateral policy of the past. Even if domination over regional oil and gas resources is still possible, protection of Israel would need a powerful regional ally which in addition to having power must be popular too. Such an ally must revive interaction-minded currents in the face of resistance and play the role of an intermediary in localizing US goals in the region.
In return, the United States will promise to support ambitions of such an ally even when it aims to become a regional power. Such support would hinge on convergence of strategic interests.
Now, in view of regional developments and the loss of traditional allies, Turkey under the rule of Justice and Development Party is in the best situation to accept such a role at regional and international levels. Therefore, Ankara is the United States' candidate number one for the revival of old policy of balance of powers with reliance on a regional power.
New conditions following September 11, 2011, gradually provided grounds for Turkey to assume the role assigned to it by the United States.
Those conditions include:
A) Successful management of the country in a democratic way and avoiding of extremism;
B) Solving problems with neighboring countries and winning regional countries' trust by assuming mediatory roles in such issues as Iran's nuclear case and also by taking part in peacekeeping operations in Lebanon and elsewhere;
C) Maintaining strategic relations with the United States through NATO;
D) And the most important test: taking position in support of Palestinians while maintaining strategic relations with Israel despite early tensions.
Of course, Turkey's role in Palestine will be second-handed and mostly of a propaganda nature. Turkey will take no initiative in Palestine.
The United States was originally against election of an Islamist political current in the 1990s' Turkey. However, following 9/11 and US failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, political approach of Justice and Development Party seemed more desirable than those of Iran, the Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas in Gaza, Saudi Salafis, al-Qaeda or the Islamic Jihad. Meanwhile, the United States needs a trustworthy ally to set direction of future trends in the region and create balance of powers against the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Thus, after failure of the US unilateral policies in region, the United States is shaping new balance of powers around Turkey as the main axis.
Grounds provided by Justice and Development Party in the country as well as at regional and international levels will pave the way for Turkey to play a more active role in regional developments and pursue its ambitious foreign policy goals.
On the whole, facilitating factors for Turkey's new regional policy are as follows:
A) Relative isolation of Iran and Ankara's good relations with Tehran though at a safe distance;
B) Saudi Arabia's involvement in regional developments, especially in Bahrain and Yemen;
C) The Arab Spring and new opportunities for Turkey to interfere in regional developments;
D) Concurrence of Turkey's efforts with new US approach to strengthen a regional ally in order to sway influence on current and future developments and create a counterbalance to Iran's regional power; and
E) Success of the Islamist government to put domestic affairs in order and reduce Turkish army's intervention in politics.
Meanwhile, despite historical apprehension of Arabs, they will recognize Turkey's role as counterbalance to Iran and will hail that role.
Thus, Turkey, as a balancing power and an ally of the West and the United States will be also a good option to be promoted as desirable model of government in the region.
Domestic support, promotion of regional position and international adaptability are major factors for the success of Turkish Islamist politicians in realizing their foreign policy ambitions.
The United States is not optimistic about developments in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Yemen, and even Egypt. Washington sees all of them as new opportunities for Iran to sway influence and bolster the axis of resistance in short and medium terms.
Under these circumstances, Turkey can be of great help to the West as pivot of interaction as opposed to resistance, especially under conditions that Egypt's political future is surrounded by ambiguities. The government of Erdogan has provided gradual grounds to play this role during recent years.
It seems Turkey's stances vis-à-vis Syria's developments signal a new phase of its regional role. It is here that Turkey distances from its mediatory role in favor of an interventionist one. The clear harmony between Turkey and the United States in encouraging Arab states to pressure the Syrian government is an early sign of the role that Turkey wants to play in regional developments. If Turkey succeeded in subduing Assad's government as Iran's main strategic ally, it would then play a decisive role in Arab-Israeli peace process and the entire Islamic world.
Syria is Turkey's litmus test for the success or failure of Syria's interventionist policy. In fact, Turkey has taken a great risk. Continued support of Turkey's people, backing from regional public opinion, continued support from the United States and Europe, failure of the Syrian government in controlling unrest and passivity of regional governments in the face of Turkey's interventionist policy are necessary conditions for the success of Ankara's policy in the case of Syria.
Should any of these conditions fail to realize in medium term, future success of Turkey's new foreign policy will be at best vague. Justice and Development Party may come under pressure from the domestic opposition or the army if its achievements prove ephemeral. Perhaps, Ankara will even have to choose between winning the public opinion of the region and Muslim countries, and the support of the west. It will have to sacrifice one for the other. This will be more of a problem if interventionist policy is pursued through military measures.
Any military intervention by Turkey with backing of the West and possibly within framework of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will cause Ankara seem to be a US agent in the region. This will certainly cast serious doubt on legitimacy of other Ankara's measures. If Syria manages to quench the unrest, Turkey's achievements in promoting constructive ties with Syria during recent years will be lost.
Interventionist policy of Turkey will also ring the alarms for other regional states. Efforts by Turkey to revive the past Ottoman Empire (Neo-Ottomanism) will elicit sharp reactions from regional players, especially Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and North African states.
Common positions of the United States and Turkey toward developments in Syria are an important test. Rapid change of position on Syria by Turkish politicians is a sign of their readiness and haste in taking advantage of the existing conditions to establish themselves as a regional power.
About Iran Review: Iran Review (www.iranreview.org) is the leading independent, non-governmental and non-partisan website - organization representing scientific and professional approaches towards Iran's political, economic, social, religious, and cultural affairs, its foreign policy, and regional and international issues within the framework of analysis and articles.
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