ISTANBUL (IDN) – In a record time, Turkish diplomacy has managed to put together several pieces in its Middle East puzzle — in fact it has struck strategic deals with three key regional players: Iran, Iraq, and Syria. A new ’quartet’ has been formed. The question is what kind of music can it play?
The Turkish shift towards the Middle East jumped visibly to the news earlier this year, when Prime Minister Recep Erdogan walked out of the World Economic Forum in Davos, to signal his strong protest against Israeli massive attacks on Gaza, which killed around 1,500 Palestinians, many of them civilians, for which the UN charged Tel Aviv with war crimes.
Shortly after, Turkey was invited to attend Arab League’s Foreign ministers meetings as an active observer. The Arab League comprises only the 22 Arab countries.
Last summer, Ankara accepted a challenging plan, promoted by Damascus, to form a newMiddle East bloc between Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria itself.
As a starter, and in spite of its threatening drought, Turkey agreed to Syrian and Iraqi petition to maintain the volume of waters (500 cubic meters per second) pouring from its mountains into River Euphrates which flows through its two neighbours.
In September, Erdogan announced the cancellation of the annual joint military manoeuvreswith U.S. and Israeli troops. The reason, according to Turkish prime minister, is that his country does not want Israeli war fighters, which killed innocent civilians in Gaza to fly its skies.
In October, Erdogan embarked in a tour through the tree capitals of the new ‘quartet’.
TURKEY-SYRIA: SANS FRONTIERS
In Damascus, he implemented what Syrian Foreign minister Walid Al Moalem characterized as a “historical event”– opening borders between Turkey and Syria, abolishing entry visas, and liberalizing road transport between the two countries.
In addition, Turkey and Syria signed over three dozens of co-operation agreements, ranging from energy to security, defence, water and, of course, political mutual support.
Turkish Foreign minister Ahmed Davutoglu said in Damascus that relations between Syriaand Turkey have a "great strategic and economic relevance".
"These relations are a must as we share the same geography," he said, adding that "there is a symbolic importance to our relation with Syria: no barbed wires, no mines, no gates, but open borders."
And Syrian Defence minister Ali Habib announced the participation of his country in joint land military manoeuvres with Turkey. "We agreed to run bigger, more comprehensive joint military exercises" in the future.
TURKEY-IRAQ: WATER, ENERGY AND PKK
Shortly after, Erdogan went to Baghdad. There the two countries signed 48 agreements and memorandums of understating, covering a wide range of issues, from energy to water passing andsecurity.
In Baghdad, Erdogan underlined the firm determination of Turkey to combat the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which according to him, uses the North of Iraq as a backyard base, He stressed that the PKK is a movement that threatens both Turkish and Iraqi security.
In a joint press conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, Erdogan told reporters that Ankara hopes that trade exchanges between the two countries would increase four-fold to reach 20 billion dollars a year.
Reacting to Al Maliki’s insistence on the need that Turkey increases water flow toEuphrates and Tigris Rivers, which an Iraqi official spokesman estimated at 440 millions cubic meters per second, Erdogan announced that his country will raise this volume to 550 million meters per second.
Erdogan and Al Maliki also agreed to launch negotiations to regulate exports of Iraqi natural gas to Europe through Turkey. It is still not clear if the Iraqi gas will pass through the European Nabucco pipeline project.
The Nabucco project will link Turkey with Austria through 3,300 kilometres crossingBulgaria, Romania, and Hungary. It costs 7.9 billion dollars and is expected to be operational by the year 2015. The project aims at reducing European dependence on Russian gas.
Moreover, Turkey and Iraq agreed to reactivate oil pipelines projects between the two countries, as well as the construction of railways linking Iraq to Europe through Turkey.
TURKEY-IRAN: NUCLEAR, GAS, AND POLITICS
Then Erdogan went to Tehran, where he did the same things aimed at strengthening ties as he did in Damascus and Baghdad, and expressed clear understanding towards Iran’s stand vis-à-vis the West in relation to the Iranian nuclear programme.
Erdogan agreed with President Mohamoud Ahmadynijad, whom he called "a friend" to promote trade exchange and do it in their respective local currencies.
In Tehran, Erdogan signalled that Iran is a "friend nation" and reiterated his blames to Western countries for what he called "unfair" and "hypocritical" positions regarding Irannuclear intentions.
Then he characterised as "act of madness" an eventual Israel attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.
With Syria, Iraq and Iran, Turkey set up high-level strategic co-operation councils.
Once this new Middle East quartet has been agreed upon, what can it do?
So far, all four members of the bloc would be benefiting.
Syria manages to produce a new breach in the tight siege imposed by former White House occupant, who added it to his list of "evil axes".
In addition, Damascus enjoys full Turkish support and readiness to mediate with Europe, theU.S. and eventually Israel again. It also ensures its much-needed water supplies fromTurkey.
Iraq is having dangerous divergence with its Kurdistan region, which wants to enjoy full self-rule, bordering independence, and keep all oil resources and revenues for the Kurds.
Keeping good relations with her powerful Turkish neighbour will help it both harnessKurdish independence aspirations, ensure water provisions, and mediate with Syria, whichBaghdad accuses of harbouring Iraqi former Baath party elements, responsible according toBaghdad of fuelling massive attacks in its lands.
Iran could not welcome more the Turkish overture. It helps Tehran break the international isolation imposed by former U.S. administration, which listed it, as well as Syria, on its "axes of evil".
In exchange of its support, Tehran offers Turkey to explore natural gas in Southern Fares field, against 50 per cent of all gas extracted from it, which Turkey can use and even export.
With this, and in addition to its energy agreements with Iraq, Turkey will become a key energy transportation channel to Europe, but also an exporter.
At the same time, Tehran would not fear that an eventual Turkish strong presence in the region would threaten its own plans. In fact, Turkey is not an Arab country.
In the cases of Syria and Iran, the fact that Turkey is an important member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and ally of Washington and London, could not be more comforting. In fact, Turkish voice is not only heard in the NATO, U.S. and UK, but also listened to.
Turkey also benefits. With its Middle East growing influence, Ankara can offer to Europe a good channel of communication with conflictive Middle East.
This can help Ankara strengthen its arguments for either a European Union membership, to which it aspires, or a significant ‘privileged partnership’ which European big powers offer it instead of fully joining the EU club.
Parallel to all that, a new, strong role and influence in the Middle East proportionate to Ankara’s wide, rich markets, big investment opportunities for its development, and a solid corridor to also oil-rich but under-developed Central Asia countries, are among so many others benefits.
A quick look at a statement by Erdogan on October 29 during his visit to Tehran may help understand better. "Turkey has never neglected any of its neighbouring areas, fromPalestine to Lebanon to Syria and Jordan, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan", he said. In fact,Erdogan arrived in Tehran from Islamabad.
There, Erdogan addressed the Pakistani parliament. "Turkey and Pakistan are two influential countries in the region and they will continue efforts to bring comprehensive peace."
In this first time ever that a foreign high official addressed the Pakistani parliament,Ergodan said: "The remedies are in hands of the countries of the region . . . not outside."
This is another question altogether.
If the new quartet pretends to exercise political muscles in the Middle East, it would be strongly exposed to the risk of demolition by the current strongest player on Earth, the U.S.
If instead the four countries are content with enjoying mutual benefits and playing a low-profile game, that might be more than enough to survive.
But George Orwell, in his 1984 masterwork, explained that those who hold power are never happy with having it — they need to show it. (IDN-InDepthNews/09.11.2009)