The Magazine

The Return of the Ottomans

The sick man of Europe is back and causing ­trouble again.

Jun 28, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 39 • By LEE SMITH
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Today, Hafez’s son Bashar likes to speak of Turkey and Syria’s shared history, explaining that “Arab and Turkish blood is one blood across history”—a phrase that unintentionally resonates with historical pathos. Syrians after all are often disparagingly called Tamerlane’s bastards, a reference to the trail of destruction and sexual violence that the Turkic conqueror left in his wake. Presumably, today’s Turks are of a much kinder disposition, and Damascus has both an Iranian ally and a government in Ankara that is wooing it—or at least this is how the Syrians are playing it publicly.

Erdogan’s invitation to Hezbollah’s secretary general to visit Ankara certainly reinforces the fear that what we’re watching is the formation of a united resistance front, with Turkey signing on to the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas alliance. But this may well turn out, eventually anyway, to be a revival of the historic rivalry between the Turks and the Persians. The problem is not just that their competition is likely to further radicalize the political culture of an already volatile region, but that subsidiary actors will be forced to prove their bona fides as well. It will drag in the Jordanians. And what about the Egyptians, who are on the verge of a very delicate succession issue as the 83-year-old Mubarak’s days are numbered and no one knows if his son Gamal will indeed be able to replace him? 

Syria is about the only player whose actions can be gamed with any accuracy. The country right now considers itself Hamas’s interlocutor, which is precisely the role that Erdogan auditioned for with the cruise of the Mavi Marmara. Should Europe, or at some point the United States, accept Turkish mediation, it will knock Syria down a peg, which will then feel obligated to assert itself. Perhaps the best way to understand Syria’s recent shipment of Scuds to Hezbollah is as a reminder to everyone that attention must be paid to Damascus as well as Tehran, that when it comes to Hezbollah, Assad also has a vote in war or peace with Israel. Turkish-Iranian competition will entail accelerated Syrian activity on two of Israel’s borders.

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Iran’s neighbors across the water, see the recent events in starker terms. Ankara’s shot across Tehran’s bow is a good thing, period. As Abdul Rahman al-Rashid, Saudi columnist for the London-based pan-Arab news-paper Asharq al-Awsat writes: 

Erdogan, who wanted to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza, broke the Iranian blockade on the Arabs instead. .  .  . [T]he most that Ankara could benefit from by raising the Palestinian flag would be by advancing its political status, [which] does not contract or marginalize Arab interests, unlike the Iranian goal which directly undermines the Arab position.

If some Saudi officials are concerned that Erdogan’s play is a bit radical and wish, according to Asharq al-Awsat editor in chief Tariq Homayed, “Hamas would follow Turkey, and not vice versa,” in the end it all comes down to sectarianism. Turkey is Sunni, Iran is Shia, and despite the Ottoman Empire’s long history of oppressing their imperial subjects, the Arabs prefer anything to the prospect of Persian hegemony. If it means casting their lot with the progeny of those who enslaved them for centuries—well there is great comfort in custom.

If in a sense the Middle East is returning to its historical divisions—an Ottoman (Turkish) and Safavid (Iranian) rivalry where Israel stands in for the Western powers—especially with Washington’s diminishing profile in the region—it is worth lamenting how the Arabs wasted their moment of independence. What started with the birth of the Arab state system moved quickly to wars between those states and within them, and then the empty rhetoric of Nasser, despotism, mass murder, and a unifying hatred of Israel, all culminating in the suicidal obscurantism of groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, whom the Arab masses, characteristically, regard as heroes. The “Arab century,” that period during which the Arabs had their own destiny in their hands, was brief, lasting roughly a decade from 1956-67. A harsher, and perhaps more accurate, assessment suggests that it was even shorter than that: After all, Israel’s victory in the Six Day War shows that Nasser’s success at Suez was due not to anything he did, but to an American president’s ordering the French, British, and Israelis to stand down.

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