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All eyes on Obama and Erdogan as Mideast tensions flare

Anyone watching the Middle East kept an eye on Obama's visit to Saudi Arabia and municipal elections in Turkey

Eyad Abu Shakra

Published: Updated:

Anyone watching the tense scene in the Middle East had been anticipating two recent events: U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the municipal elections in Turkey.

True, there have been other incidents that garnered media attention, such as the Arab League summit hosted by Kuwait, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry renewing efforts to revive the Israeli–Palestinian peace talks, the latest developments in the Egyptian presidential elections, the turbulent situation in Iraq, and the so-called “security plans” and forthcoming elections in Iraq and Lebanon. All of these incidents deserve to be highlighted; however, to be frank none of them will have a palpable impact on the politics of the region.

The outcome of the Arab League summit was known in advance, not only because of the now-familiar inter-Arab differences but also the schisms now appearing within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—which, until recently, was the most robust and cohesive Arab organization.

On the other hand, the expectations surrounding Kerry’s efforts to strike an Israeli–Palestinian peace deal were never that high in the first place. First, Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies have always sought to undermine anything and everything that might lead to a peaceful solution. Second, Washington has never been equidistant from the two sides in the negotiation process it insists on monopolizing.

As for Egypt, it is obvious that the way has been paved for the election of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as president. In addition, a sense of déjà-vu applies to the situation in Iraq and Lebanon, with any elections there remaining outside of the scope of speculation and conjecture given Iran’s hegemony over Baghdad and Beirut.

Obama’s role

The consensus was that Obama’s visit to Riyadh came at a time characterized by clear differences of opinion between the Kingdom and the U.S. regarding some of the vital issues keeping the region on edge. But this is not the first time such differences have been noted between the two traditional allies. For example, one may point to Saudi Arabia’s misgivings about the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. At the time, Riyadh expressed clearly and frankly its reservations based on its understanding of the nature of the region and its social and political fabric. As we recall, George W. Bush, with the Republican neocons and the Pentagon’s hawks behind him, did not heed the friendly advice, choosing instead to deal with Iraq their own way. They got what they were after, and as a result Iraq turned into a vassal state in Iran’s orbit, as we see today.

The consensus was that Obama’s visit to Riyadh came at a time characterized by clear differences of opinion between the kingdom and the U.S.

Eyad Abu Shakra

Obama came to the White House from a different political background to Bush, and during his first visit to the Middle East—the most prominent feature of which was his speech at Cairo University—he gave the impression that he was keen on promoting understanding with the region. Indeed, some thought that he was truly of a different disposition from traditional U.S. presidents, a perception largely based on his much-touted election slogan, “Change.” Nevertheless, Washington’s reaction to the “Arab Spring” was reluctant and self-contradictory. While claiming to be in line with the system of high principles it defended, the U.S. response to the “Arab Spring” lacked intuition or realism. Even when the U.S. administration decided to move, it preferred to “lead from behind” other regional and international players—that is, until its approach to the Syrian crisis caused that policy’s demise.

Regardless of Israel’s true attitude towards Assad remaining in power, it must be said at this point that Washington had raised expectations by making a barrage of promises and threats, only to prove later that it was never serious about honoring any of them.

Dangerous crisis

Later on, it became clear that the crisis was more dangerous than anyone had realized. However, just as it became clear to the entire world that the Syrian regime was a mere facade of Iran’s regional project, details of a then-undisclosed dialogue between Washington and Tehran began to emerge. It appears today that this U.S.–Iran rapprochement aims to develop into a partnership. Taken on its own terms this is positive step, but it wouldn’t be when it runs in parallel with Washington’s deafening silence on Iran’s burgeoning influence in the region, from Lebanon, Syria and Iraq to Yemen and Sudan.

In Riyadh, Obama reiterated that rapprochement with Iran would not come at the expense of Washington’s “friends” in the region. Indeed, U.S. politicians have grown accustomed to repeating similar remarks ever since the U.S. appeasement of China in the 1970s. At the time, Washington maintained that normalizing relations with Beijing would not compromise its ties with Japan and South Korea. The difference with the current situation is that, at the time, China was not occupying parts of Japan or South Korea.

As for Turkey

As for Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the municipal elections may give Ankara a dose of confidence, and will likely see Turkey’s return to the region’s political arena through Syria. At this point, we must acknowledge that some of the problems that have plagued Turkey over the past two years have been self-inflicted. Ankara did not need to give precedence to its ideological interests over its strategic ones following the transformation in Egypt that saw the end of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule.

Ankara–Tehran ties also require realistic and broad analysis. Thus far, the tone between the two capitals has been very friendly. The experience of the Brotherhood—Ankara’s allies—in Egypt in terms of the way they dealt with Tehran indicated that they were ready to sacrifice Syria and leave it to Iran’s hegemony.

When the transformation took place in Egypt, Ankara’s reaction was rather rash and petulant, regardless of how it views the Iranian project. Furthermore, Erdogan’s reactions have lost Ankara the sympathy and admiration of a wide segment of Arab public opinion, which a few years ago saw Ankara as an ally.

This is why the Arab region is now keenly observing how Erdogan will act following the new popular mandate he secured in the municipal elections.

How will Erdogan respond to the course the Syrian crisis has taken, particularly on the Lattakia front close to the Turkish border? How will he handle Bashar Al-Assad’s regime targeting the Turkmen minority in Syria?

Will the Erdogan government act with the mentality of a regional power or as a parochial ruling party?

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on April 3, 2014.

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Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.