While US President Obama plays a genteel game of golf in Hawaii, presidents Racep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Vladimir Putin of Russia continue to play no-nonsense Middle East hardball. Erdogan is taking no chances. His trust of the US president is as about as wide as the rest of the Sunni states of the region, and that’s not very wide at all. Erdogan understands that the White House has dropped the ball in the Middle East. Unlike President Bush, who was ready to push his agenda for regional Levant democracy forward, Obama has done next to nothing to stop the world’s worst dictator, Assad of Syria, from massacring his own people. Erdogan’s bottom line is that Assad and his Iranian allies must not be allowed to continue to occupy Damascus. This Iranian occupation of Syria has become an existential concern for Israel and the Sunni Arab world; it is also uppermost on the agenda in Turkey.
Erdogan has a Western policy, but just in case Obama lets him down, he also has an alternative policy. What he has asked of the US is that America’s two most pressing concerns for the region — ISIS and the Iranian nuclear program — not be compartmentalized. Erdogan, like the Saudis and the Israelis, understands dealing with these two issues separately (without a regional dimension) can only work to enhance Iran’s hegemonic designs. Until proven otherwise, Turkey still regards the government in Baghdad as a Tehran puppet. And while Hezbollah and its Iranian rockets pose a grave threat to Israel, Iranian support for the PKK inside both Syria and Turkey means that Iran has essentially encircled the Turks. By supporting a fifth column inside Turkey itself, Iran has challenged a NATO member without any apparent US concern for the Islamic Republic’s regional position. At least, not until the nuclear negotiations are concluded. But Turkey, like Israel and the Gulf Sunni states, can’t be satisfied with such ambiguity.
Iran would like nothing better than a nuclear deal that is weak, short-lived and could provide it with instant relief from the global sanctions regime. Tehran feels that it probably can play Washington along, in hopes of just such a deal. Once a deal is signed and the sanctions are lifted, Iran will have the cash to continue to play its long game of Shiite hegemony in the Middle East. Like Israel and Saudi Arabia, Turkey is also very nervous about the US and Iran. But as previously noted, Turkey has a back-up policy which includes its northern neighbor, Russia.
Up to the present moment, Russia has supported both Assad and Iran. But Russian-American relations have deteriorated badly over the future of Europe, and a dangerous game of economic warfare has broken out between Washington and Moscow. President Putin of Russia can be as flexible toward the Middle East as President Obama seems to be rigid regarding both his compartmentalized ISIS policy and his isolated-from-the-region Iran nuclear negotiations. The Russians understand that an Iran nuclear deal would clear the market for EU investment in exchange for potential Iranian oil and gas. This would be a long-term Western project that Moscow could do little to stop. But such an outcome would also open the door for a closer Russian relationship with Turkey, Egypt and all of the Sunni Gulf states. In other words, if Obama continues to conceive of any variant of an Iranian detente, Russia could alter its Syrian policy to include a negotiated settlement without insisting on either Assad’s participation or even his regime’s survival.
Putin has invited the Syrian opposition to Moscow in the past. In fact, it has only been a matter of weeks since a broad Russian array of trial balloons were released by his diplomats. The cornerstone of this recent Russian diplomacy was the decision to scrap the South Stream oil pipeline directed toward southern Europe, and replace it with a line to Turkey instead. But the Russian diplomacy also included a tour of the Levant by Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Mikhail Bogdonov (implying closer relations between Moscow and the Sunni Arab states), as well as direct talks with the Syrian opposition. None of this means anything is changing any time soon, but the game is fluid, and Moscow understands the deep concerns of America’s Middle East Sunni allies.
It has been a month since US Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Ankara. Erdogan insisted that the US maintain its firm red line — that the Assad regime must go. He continued to press the point that Assad needed to be fought as hard as ISIS. The Turkish position has always been that a no-fly zone be established in northern Syria to link a corridor of “liberated Syrian space” for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to become fully supplied and trained. Washington has balked at this idea in the past. Obama’s concerns were for political domestic reasons as well as fear of being dragged into another Middle East quagmire. This could lead to a potential direct Russian-American confrontation. Obama has always backed down, and he never bought into the Turkish plan.
In the meantime, the vacuum created by Obama’s indecision has left Erdogan no choice but to continue to allow for a constant stream of money, weapons and fighters from the conservative Gulf states alone. This in turn has led to the direct involvement of a radical Islamist Syrian opposition. Just follow the money. Jihad has always been the name of the game when it comes to the wealthy oil kings and their multitude of princes. Without US leadership, it was only a matter of time before the various branches of al Qaeda took over.
So now Obama plays golf, as Erdogan and Putin prepare for the future. While out on his Hawaiian paradise golf course, the young American president probably assumes that Turkey has little choice but to continue seeking EU trade and NATO protection. But EU trade can be replaced by Asian trade, and NATO is not without its potential competitors. It was only a year ago when President Erdogan quipped that Russia could save Turkey from its never-ending EU accession torments and “allow us in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and save us from this trouble”. Erdogan showed his policy flexibility then, and now (a short thirteen months later) the world appears to be bifurcating along an axis of NATO vs. Russia-China. If Obama continues to believe that the Iran nuclear negotiation can be separated from the regional dimension of the Middle East, or that he can partner with an Iran that is “moderate” in its new outlook, the severe test of this policy will come with Turkey and a very skilled geopolitical planner, Vladimir Putin.
Whether Obama likes it or not, he has little choice but to cooperate with Russia. If he goes it alone with Erdogan and establishes that no-fly zone, he will face Russian defensive missiles over Syria. If he chooses a compartmentalized nuclear deal with Iran, he risks further alienating or losing many of his current Middle East allies. The question is whether or not the American president would be willing to cooperate with Russia over the future of Europe. That, of course, would be his key to cooperation over the entire Middle East as well. So far the president has shown no inclination to do so.
But golf is a game for gentlemen. And there is nothing gentle about the hardball of geopolitics. Iranian hegemony in the Middle East will be fought, one way or another. The same is true for any attempt at global hegemony. Sooner or later, a constellation of forces will challenge the potential of a unipolar world or a unipolar region. America’s future lies with a new foreign policy. No one is asking her to forsake her values. But the promotion of democracy through global military strength alone was never the vision for even a post WWII world, let alone a post Cold War world. Only a new global order — with multiple poles and firmly dedicated to the permanent end of all forms of regional and/or global hegemony — can contribute to a peaceful future.
This was the inspired vision of both Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. These two men conceived a foreign policy that was in opposition to both Republican Party isolationism and Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose hegemonic interventionism. Wilson’s League of Nations became FDR’s United Nations. Neither man was imperial in his outlook, and no one knows in which direction Europe would have followed if FDR had lived through his fourth term. But for the current Democratic Party president, a man without any foreign policy legacy, events themselves are proof enough that it is time to rethink US policy assumptions held since 1947. If collective security concepts were good enough for the two greatest Democratic Party presidents of the 20th century, they certainly will be good enough in the 21st century for Barack H. Obama.