In 2011, Turkey was seen as an unstoppable regional power and a rising star led by its Development and Justice Party (AKP). But the arrival of the Arab Spring heralded a deep change in the Middle East region. Turkey’s prominence began to fade and Iran’s potential appeared to be rising with the progress it is making in nuclear negotiations. Further developments in the region have continued to surprise observers, especially the emergence of the ascendant force that is the Islamic State (IS).
Until the Arab revolts began, many believed Turkey would enjoy a bright future as a leader in the region under the AKP. Most Arabs were eager to emulate the Turkish model of democracy and economic success. Many politicians established and named their parties after the ruling AKP, and Turkish products and soap operas were flooding Arab markets and homes.
With his charisma and rhetoric, former Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was seen by most frustrated Arabs as a saviour, a leader who cared for his neighbours and had qualities their own dictators lacked – especially his open opposition to Israeli policies and practices against the Palestinians. Nonetheless, as the Arab Spring continued, a shift began to take place.
Turkey lost territory in Syria, upset the Gulf nations, further strained its luke warm relations with Iraq, entered into conflict with Israel and finally saw its relations with Egypt deteriorate. And Turkey’s challenges did not end at its doorstep. With the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul and the 2013 corruption scandals involving a number of AKP ministers, the problems turned out to be domestic as well.
The recent elections in June could be considered the biggest blow suffered by the Turkish AKP since its inception in 2001 – 13 years of single-party rule in Turkey have come to an end. And while the AKP had provided Turkey with political stability and economic recovery, the impact of the recent elections on Turkey’s domestic politics and foreign policy will have direct repercussions across the entire region.
Meanwhile, as Turkey’s regional star is setting, other stars are rising. Iran, for example, is a regional power with considerable potential. Its closest allies in the region (the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Huthi in Yemen) have been under tremendous pressure, and their power and leverage has been declining significantly. But although Iran has suffered a great deal since the advent of the Arab Spring, the nuclear deal reached with the 5+1 nations will bolster its position over time by lifting decades-long imposed sanctions. It will furthermore allow Iran to export its oil again (the re-emergence of such a huge exporter will undoubtedly hurt Russia’s economy) and will eventually lead to unfreezing many more of Iran’s assets – in 2014 the US unfroze $1 billion, or €913 million.
If this happens, there is no question that Iran, which could build a network of regional allies and preserve its military capabilities with an immense arsenal of weapons, will become a rising economic power as well. As such, one can expect Iran’s allies, mainly Shiite groups, to receive a big boost as well.
A remarkable third player has been emerging on the Arab stage: the nonstate actor, IS. The group arose from the remnants of dissolved regimes, failed dictatorships, and an austere interpretation of Islam, and has imposed and reinforced its presence and influence across the region. The emergence of IS has turned the whole region on its head. Puritanism has swept the Arab world and a new vocabulary – one of apostates, infidels and heretics – has become commonplace. In the blink of an eye, IS was able to eliminate borders and take control of large swaths of Iraq and Syria.
The 60-plus members of the US led anti-Islamic State coalition have been unable to stop IS expansion and the consolidation of its rule. Interestingly, US President Barack Obama announced in July that he believes there is no end in sight to the battle with IS, meanwhile stressing that he opposes putting any more US boots on ground.
IS can be understood as a unique representation of the entangled interests and relations in the region. Through IS, some powers aim to weaken Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and his closest ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah. Others are eager to use IS to keep the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) busy and distracted. A third group is interested in IS sparking a sectarian conflict that would drag both Sunni and Shiite extremists into an endless war so as to ‘let the bad guys kill each other’.
US Vice President Joe Biden even accused America’s key allies in the Middle East of allowing the rise of IS and supporting it with money and weapons in order to oust the Assad regime. Biden summed up the crux of the issue in his speech at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum: “(US allies) were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni- Shia war”.
Similarly, US General Wesley Clark stated that “ISIS got started with funding from our closest allies … to fight to the death against Hezbollah”.
With the current state of affairs, and in light of the recent elections, one can conclude that Turkey’s foreign policy influence and regional leadership role will decline. The AKP, which in the eyes of many Western countries represents a moderate model of Islamic democracy, can no longer form a single- party government and will thus lose the leverage and freedom to execute the kinds of proactive policies it had previously championed in the Middle East. The decline of Turkey will result in the strengthening of other regional forces: Iran and IS. As outlined above, the promising potential of Iran in the region will mean a new role for the country and perhaps a fresh network of Shiite allies. Meanwhile, the clout and influence of the mighty IS – which adheres to a strict Sunni dogma – is steadily growing.
Unfortunately, these developments can only lead to only one conclusion: an unavoidable, far-reaching, Sunni-Shiite conflict in the Middle East region.