A few months back, I was dining with a friend at an Armenian restaurant in Beirut, and at the end of the meal he gracefully sidestepped the Turkish question by ordering a “Byzantine” coffee. The waiter laughed grimly. “Aside from coffee and waterpipes,” asked my friend, “what did the Turks leave us? They were here for 500 years, and they didn’t even leave us their language. We speak Arabic, French, and English. No one speaks Turkish. Their most important political institutions were baksheesh and the khazouk.”
Baksheesh is bribery, and the khazouk is a spike driven through its victim’s rectum, which the Ottomans used to terrify locals and deter potential insurgents. The Ottomans were hated here and throughout the Arabic-speaking Middle East, not only by the regional minorities (Christians, Jews, Shia, etc.) but also by their Sunni Arab coreligionists. All felt the heavy yoke of the Sublime Porte.
In the last few weeks, however, half a millennium’s worth of history has been conveniently forgotten, perhaps even forgiven, as Turkey has emerged as a regional power and the guarantor of Arab interests—against Israel, to be sure, but more importantly against Iran.
In truth, the wheels were in motion long before Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government sponsored the Mavi Marmara’s cruise to Gaza, which left nine activists dead after they challenged an Israeli boarding party. Erdogan’s winter 2009 performance at Davos, when he confronted Israeli president Shimon Peres in the wake of the Gaza offensive, made the Turkish Islamist a regional celebrity. And while the Arab masses were thrilled to hear Israel denounced by a Muslim leader—and an ally of the Jewish state no less—the more important work was taking place behind the scenes. After Davos, high-level political sources in Beirut let on that there’d been a meeting in Cairo with President Hosni Mubarak. “The Egyptians are very happy with Erdogan,” said one. “The Turks are trying to take the Palestinian file out of the hands of the Iranians and give it back to the Arabs.”
It’s not yet clear whether Ankara really means to restore the Arabs to their pride of place by handing over a Hamas scrubbed of Iranian influence, or, as is more likely, the Turks simply want to use the Palestinian cause to enhance its own regional credentials, as Tehran has been doing for the last three decades. But the Turkish gambit has induced a lot of willful self-delusion in the Arab states—and amnesia.
Long before Arab nationalism identified Israel and the United States (and before that the European powers) as the enemy, it was the Ottomans who were called to account for everything that was wrong in the Arabic-speaking regions. The Ottomans certainly encouraged Middle East sectarianism: playing up confessional differences, empowering some sects while weakening others, and balancing minorities against each other. Arab nationalism was inspired by Turkish nationalism, but it was a doctrine that asserted Arab independence from the Ottomans. There were no longer Sunni, Shia, Druze, Alawi, etc., only Arabs, unified as one against the outsiders, the colonizers.
The Arab states that had been most directly oppressed by the Sublime Porte—and so those most divided along sectarian lines—were determined to illuminate the evils of Ottoman occupation. No Arab state was more anti-Turkish than Baathist Syria. The Syrian television serials that commonly promote the blood libel and feature other anti-Semitic caricatures at one time also cast Ottomans as villains. Indeed, Damascus went where even Washington fears to tread, producing serials that mention the Armenian genocide. And Syrian anti-Turkish sentiment wasn’t only about past affronts. Just as Damascus demands that Israel return the Golan Heights, there is a significant land dispute at the center of Syrian-Turkish relations. In 1939, the Turks conquered what is today known as Hatay province, but the Syrians call Iskenderun or Alexandretta, and which Damascus long claimed was occupied land. In 2005, the Syrians quietly relinquished their claims and thus opened a new chapter in the history of their two countries—which included a 1998 conflict in which Turkey was poised to invade its Arab neighbor until Hafez al-Assad handed over Kurdish separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan.
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.
In reality, the Arab century was ours. For more than 65 years, the United States was the power underwriting the Arabs, and if not always the most sincere benefactor, we nonetheless protected them from more dangerous forces and their even more dangerous fantasies. What we won from the region is what the Turks now want as well: the wealth, influence, and power that is consequent on hegemony in the energy-rich Middle East. Ankara will serve as an inter-mediary between their Arab charges and a stingy Europe that up till now has turned its back on Turkey. But what do the Turks have to offer the Arabs that they hadn’t already impressed upon the region when they left it to its own devices almost a century ago? The Americans brought schools and hospitals to the Middle East, and, after 9/11, democracy, too, at last—or perhaps, too late. It’s not the Arab vacuum that Ankara is rushing to fill, but our own.
Lee Smith is the author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations (Doubleday).