Middle East Leaders Wander in the Desert: World View

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By Nicholas Noe & Walid Raad

As the Syrian leadership continued to come in for criticism across much of the Arab media, several commentators turned their attention toward Turkey and the role Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan is said to be assuming in both cajoling and chastising his former "friend'' in Damascus, President Bashar Assad.

Erdogan -- whom some writers are calling the "Islamic Prime Minister" -- stood on the balcony of his party's headquarters to celebrate his recent win in parliamentary elections, wrote Al-Hayat columnist Elias Harfoush, and announced that ``the victory of Ankara is that of Damascus, and the victory of Izmir is that of Beirut, and the victory of Diar Bakr is that of the West Bank and Jerusalem and Gaza.''

For decades, Harfoush continued, Damascus has meddled in the affairs of Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and even Egypt and some Gulf countries. The Assad family also "used its relationship with Iran in order to serve" its own Syrian project -- just as it supported the Western alliance against the Iraqi Baath party of Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War.

By gaining this external legitimacy, the regime did not think that the internal front was an important one. There was a conviction that internal support, i.e. the one provided by the people to the party and to the `leader of the state and society' is granted as long as this party is performing the regional tasks required by the nationalistic battle `that rises above every other voice.

Instead, Harfoush concluded in the Saudi owned, London-based daily, the Syrian leadership has been rudely awakened to the disarray, with more than 10,000 refugees reportedly now in southern Turkey and more than 1,000 dead during the three months of unrest.

``The strength of the democratic regime that Turkey currently enjoys is what protects it'' in the face of its own troubles in the region, vis-a-vis Israel and the European Union, as well as what allows it to play a larger role in the affairs of the Middle East in general.

For some though, this expanded Turkish push is also having an important effect on a different regional power vying for influence among its neighbors: Iran. Contrasting official Iranian support for Damascus with Erdogan's recent statements that the Syrian leadership's crackdown was "inappropriate" and "inhumane," columnist Rajeh Khoury opined that the Turkish prime minister's rhetoric "fell like black rain on the ears of those persons in Tehran who are keen on expanding Persian power" in the region. "This takes us back a hundred years in history," Khoury wrote approvingly in the Beirut-based An-Nahar, a newspaper that has been especially cutting in its criticism of Syria in recent years. "The 'sultanate' is coming back" only under a modern and attractive image: "A mixture of open political Islam with no beards and with ties, along with the leftovers of the secular Ataturk heritage that still lingers in the broader Turkish culture."

And while the mullahs in Iran are finding this Turkish balancing act poses a danger to their own Islamic ambitions in the Middle East, the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood is also nervous, especially in Egypt, "where the group has called for growing a million beards at a time when the challenge consists of finding millions of Egyptian pounds in order to feed the people!"

For Abdul Wahab Badr-Khan writing in the Jerusalem-based Al-Quds, Turkey's rising currency and relatively sudden break with Damascus also offers a stark reversal of a key trend that many analysts thought was gaining strength over the past few years.

``For a while, a `strategic partnership' seemed possible between the members of the Turkish-Syrian-Iranian trio but now the calculations are completely different since Iran does not see any future for its interests in the Syrian people and it will fight to win its wager on the regime alone, while Turkey is wagering on an elected, civilian authority and will try to move the regime from the stage of bullets to that of reforms'' -- or possibly turn on the regime in full if it rejects such reforms.

One columnist long critical of both Iran and Syria went even further, arguing that Tehran may yet find reason to break with Syria of its own accord. Writing in the Saudi owned Asharq al-Awsat daily, Amir Taheri asked: "Is Iran beginning to abandon the Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad? Officially, the Baathist regime in Damascus and the Khomeinist regime in Tehran remain strategic allies."

However, Turkey's "new ambitions" in the region "clash with Iran's hegemonic plans."

"For Khomeinists in Tehran, Erdogan's claim" to be the leading Islamic model "is as provocative as waving a red cloth at a Spanish bull. (The Khomeinist constitution claims that Ali Khamenei is `Leader of all Muslims throughout the world')," noted Taheri.

But with some Iranian media beginning to mildly criticize Assad's crackdown, Tehran's jettisoning of their allies in Damascus "cannot be ruled out."

"Khomeinists have never hesitated to drop a protege when he looked like a loser."

If Tehran's attitude changes, the key, once again, would be Turkey. "Having initially backed the Assad clan, Turkey has now switched to supporting the uprising. By doing so it is banking on the future as the Assad clan increasingly looks like the past. Iran, however, is still wedded to the past in Syria, and could therefore emerge as a loser."

An additional word of caution was sounded by the London-based, Palestinian owned Al-Quds al-Arabi, a daily which has long supported states like Syria and opposed the U.S. and Israel. Arguing that the Syrian state-controlled media committed a "grave mistake when it quit known traditions and launched a campaign of instigation against Turkey and its elected government," the paper sharpened its criticism by saying that attacking Turkey and its prime minister "at a time when the country is hosting Syrian refugees is illogical, let along undiplomatic, considering that it creates unjustified enmities. The Syrian authorities must realize there is a difference between friends such as Erdogan -- who is calling on them to introduce fast and immediate reforms out of a concern for Syria -- and its enemies stalking the country and exploiting the bloody oppression exercised by the army and security forces.''

Sadly though, as the unrest and violence in Syria enters its fifth month, advice from friends, much less from enemies, seems more than likely to fall on deaf ears in Damascus and among their allies -- all the more so as violence on both sides increases.

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-0- Jun/21/2011 12:23 GMT