As Turkey’s recently re-elected President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to publicly champion the Palestinian cause at a time when some of the largest and wealthiest Arab nations go mum on the central issue of Arab political identity in the 20th and 21st centuries. Instead of joining Turkey in support for Palestinian Arabs, it has been reported that officials in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt have lobbied Tel Aviv to take a harsher line against Turkey.
Recently it was reported that officials in Riyadh, Cairo, Amman and even politicians within Palestine made complaints to Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu claiming he was “asleep at the wheel” regarding Turkey’s growing clout among Palestinians who are now often seen waving Turkish flags during the protracted Great March of Return. Following from the Arab grievances made to Israel regarding their own Turkophobia, it has emerged that Tel Aviv will take measures restricting the operations of the aid organisation Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) which currently helps Palestinians with basic necessities throughout occupied Palestine.
According to Sputnik,
“Among the possible measures are imposing a general restriction on TIKA’s activities and demanding that the agency obtain individual permits for its projects. At the same time, Israeli intelligence officials are said to believe that TIKA had hosted members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement and that some staff members had funneled funds and information to the Hamas movement”.
Given the resentment throughout certain Arab capitals about the fact that the central issue of post-colonial Arab identity is now being defended more loudly by a Turkish leader than virtually any Arab head of state, it is not only plausible that the confidential sources which spoke to Haaretz are telling the truth, but it is in fact likely that certain pro-Zionist Arab states are pushing Israel to become more outwardly hostile towards Turkey.
Apart from Turkey making Arab leaders look like fools by talking loudly about the Arab cause of Palestine at a time when many Arab states are only vaguely whispering about it, many Arab states, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia are keen to see Israel break what remains of its once healthy relationship with Turkey in order to force Israel into a more meaningful relationship with de-facto pro-Zionist Arab states by taking away one of Israel’s historic options for a regional partnership in the form of Turkey.
Moreover though, this development makes it clear that in the contemporary Middle East there is a clear geopolitical divide between a northern bloc of Middle East nations and southern bloc.
The northern bloc is comprised of Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. These states often have disagreements, most notably in respect of Syria and Turkey who don’t even have formal relations. But nevertheless, all of these nations look to pursue their own version of geopolitical multi-polarity, each is either resentful (Syria, Iran) or sceptical (Turkey, Lebanon) of US hegemonic ambitions in the region and each has taken a firm position in favour of Palestine vis-a-vis its occupier.
In the southern bloc are the Arab allies of the United States and Israel whose only common denominator with the north is that they are also able to have excellent relations with both Russia and China – a fact which allows Russia to skilfully balance the security concerns of each side while China can do the same economically. In the southern bloc of the Middle East lies Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan, Egypt and increasingly some of the leadership of Palestine. These countries are happy for the status quo of pushing for a US mediated peace in Palestine to drag on indefinitely (in spite of what some Palestinian leaders say), have no plans to seriously challenge the ambitions of their US ally and except for Saudi Arabia’s economic diversification drive, few have geopolitical (as opposed to economic) multipolar ambitions. In the case of some nations, Jordan for example, it appears Amman has few geopolitical ambitions if at all.
Ultimately, this is why Turkey frightens both the US and its allies in the southern bloc of the Middle East. While Iraq is militarily weak and majority Shi’a and while Syria is in the midst of a devastating conflict and is labelled by some as a “Shi’a government” (a misleading epithet but one that’s stuck in the minds of many), while Lebanon is both small, weak and politically complex and while Iran is neither Arab nor Sunni – Turkey in spite of not being an Arab state, is able under President Erdogan to speak more effectively to many Sunni Muslim Arabs (the majority of all Arabs) than both Sunni Arab states and Shi’a dominated states, whether Arab or Iranian.
Turkey has a clear advantage in winning hearts and minds in Palestine and because of this, notably, Turkey has good relations with all of its fellow northern bloc partners except for Syria though this too may change throughout the future discussions within the format of the Astana peace process. Furthermore, Turkey’s wholesale improvement of ties with Iran has now been cemented by Ankara’s willingness to continue to purchase Iranian energy in spite of the threat of US sanctions.
This clearly angers Saudi Arabia and Jordan and in spite of historic good feeling between Tel Aviv and Ankara, it now seems that Saudi Arabia and other anti-Iranian Arab powers will use Turkey’s apparently unbreakable relations with Iran to paint Turkey as a menace according to the Israeli mindset that labels any country (with the exceptions of Russia and China) which does not dislike Iran as automatically suspect or even evil.
The regional balance of power has dramatically shifted. Turkey now leads a northern bloc of Middle Eastern policy makers while Ankara’s soft power reach goes well into the southern Middle East and into Muslim majority states in Africa, including Egypt’s rival Sudan.
While many still refuse to grasp Turkey’s dramatic shift from reliable NATO member to multipolar eastern looking independent and proud nation – the realities on the ground in the Middle East speak to a wider acknowledgement among regional powers of the new reality of Turkey’s vital role as the de-facto head of the northern bloc of Middle Eastern nations. While in private Iranian policy makers must at least partly realise this, Iran’s public rhetoric has yet to catch up to the trends of Turkey being not only Iran’s most meaningful partner but the leader of the region in more ways than one.
It is now blatantly obvious that in the wider Sunni sphere of Muslim majority nations, Turkey is a lone voice in championing justice for Palestine while some of the most influential Arab states are now encouraging their new ally Israel to take active measures which will prevent Turkey from helping besieged Palestinians to attain food, medicine and clean water. The new system of alliances in the Middle East is not just forming – it has essentially been solidified.