BY ZEYNEP GURCANLI
THE MIDDLE EAST IS IN A STATE OF FLUX.
Although U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken didn’t directly list the Middle East among America’s foreign policy priorities, the Biden administration carried out its first military salvo in the region, less than two months after taking office, targeting Iranian-backed Shiite militias deployed on the Syrian-Iraqi border.
Add to this now the Pope’s visit to Iraq. What caused the most buzz during his visit was the picture of Pope Francis posing handin-hand with Iraq’s top Shia cleric, Ayatollah Sistani.
To understand what this picture tells us, it’s necessary to look first at who Sistani is and the policies he pursues. Although Sistani was born in Iran, he has lived in Iraq since he was a child. Thus, he has largely lived outside of Iran’s influence and is generally opposed to Iran’s meddling in Iraq.
Interestingly, in the same week that the U.S. hit an Iranian-backed Shiite group in Syria what it claimed was the group’s targeting of U.S. forces in Iraq, the Pope paid a visit to the most important Shia leader standing against the influence of Iran, Ayatollah Sistani.
Sources in Washington said the targeting of the group in Syria was a nod to just how complicated the political situation is in Iraq and the precarious position of the Iraqi government. Nonetheless, the speed of the response, coming on the heels of the militia attack, sent the message that while the U.S. may be eager to restart the nuclear deal, it will not ease up on Iranian-backed groups in Iraq that threaten U.S. interests.
JARABULUS – A’ZAZ UNDER ATTACK
In other news, the undeclared U.S.-Russia competition in the region has accelerated.
Speculation is that tensions are on the rise as Russia increasingly feels threatened by the possibility that the Biden administration will pressure Moscow through regions under the control of Turkey.
Russian-backed Assad troops have mobilized towards Jarabulus, located in the Euphrates Shield region, while Turkey is expecting an offensive in Idlib. Dangerous conflicts have begun on the Turkey-controlled Jarabulus-A’zaz line, which had been calm for months.
Apparently, Moscow is determined to improve its position before Washington takes full action, leading to chaos in both Afrin and Idlib.
Pressuring Moscow in Syria is critical for the U.S. in terms of curbing Iran’s influence in this country.
INITIATIVE OR COMPROMISE?
Turkey doesn’t appear to be prepared for the realignments in the region as it struggles to contend with an economic crisis, a deadly pandemic, and foreign policy pressures at the same time. It is a perfect storm in which the danger of hasty policy decisions could prove disastrous.
Indeed, we are seeing the early signs of desperation in what Ankara is euphemistically calling its progressive ‘initiatives’. Ankara has offered human rights and democratization packages which it knows it will not be able to implement. It is trying to re-establish relations with Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who for years it labeled a putschist and a murderer. Ankara has begun quarreling with Iran via Iraq just as the U.S. has taken action to signal to the Iranians that its influence in the country is unwelcome. Relations are strained; ambassadors have been summoned. Ankara has notably withdrawn from the Aegean and the Mediterranean, which it used to call the ‘Blue motherland’, after the U.S. and EU supported the Greek- Greek Cypriot front. Now where are the Oruc Reis, the Barbaros and the Yavuz? They don’t appear to be leaving their berths in the Gulf of Antalya or the Black Sea much. In addition, Ankara has added the Eastern Mediterranean title to the exploratory talks by setting aside the traditional policy in which it discussed only the Aegean issues bilaterally with the Greeks. In doing so, it has made Greece the “addressee” in the Eastern Mediterranean issue. Ankara has also hired lobbying firms to establish a relationship with the Biden administration in the U.S., tossing around millions of dollars for an influence campaign. On the one hand it talks about the ‘two-state solution’ in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), on the other it strives to drag the TRNC to the table where federation, or at the very least confederation, will be discussed.Ankara is opening the door to negotiations using the ‘Crete model’ for the S-400s, which the Turkish public was told was a ‘National Sovereignty issue’. The Minister of National Defense Hulusi Akar has sent a letter to the U.S. regarding the S-400, which says to Washington: Let’s find a solution.
Libya has almost been forgotten, at least in public opinion. Ankara’s passivity and silence about Libya have deepened as it tries to deal with its North African rival, Egypt. All of this feels rushed, but but foreign policy is a matter for sober calculation.
Steps which are taken today will have repercussions for generations to come.
Apparently, U.S. President Joe Biden’s plan to not contact President Erdogan directly has worked.
As the panic level rises in Ankara, policy changes are coming pouring out. And their outcomes do not seem promising for Turkey’s interests.