While Middle East Is Embroiled in Crisis, Turkey Seeks Mischief

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Pundits and politicians this week have been holding their breaths and trying to guess what will happen next, after the assassination of Lt. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian elite Quds forces and a national icon.

Questions abound in the world media: how could Iraq’s sovereignty be compromised by a strike on its territory? Will the tensions escalate further or is there a diplomatic solution? How and when will the revenge strikes from Iran come? There are many other questions circulating in the diplomatic circles and the media.

As the three-day mourning period ends, the Iranian leadership is exploiting the funeral procession of their national icon.

There are no easy — or accurate — answers to any of those questions as the situation remains fluid.

To begin with, the US and in particular, in Washington, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has taken over the White House. Crossing the Rubicon is not in President Trump’s style and strategy. Thus far, he has kept politicians and the media guessing while he teases his enemies with the illusion of brinksmanship.

It was not a Freudian slip when Pompeo answered in public that the president was in it [the decision] “reluctantly.” Today, Pompeo is replicating the role of Vice President Dick Cheney in the George W. Bush administration, who thirsted for the invasion of Iraq.

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The US Congress, predictably, reacted along partisan lines. There was no questions in the minds of legislators that Soleimani was “evil incarnate,” but taking him out required a congressional resolution. This argument was, of course, cited by Democrats, even invoking the War Powers Act, while Republicans were lock step with the president.

The most ardent supporter of Mr. Trump’s action was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; scant attention has been paid to the fact that Washington’s move was a preventative one to divert the potential for another Middle East war. Indeed, Netanyahu has been caught up in scandals. There is an indictment against him, while his election campaign is in a dead heat with his adversary, Benny Gantz. It is very plausible that Netanyahu was ready to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, igniting a regional war, because for Tehran, Israel is a relatively easier target than Washington. Therefore, the war planners in the US took the onus on themselves for damage control. Of course, this view does not enjoy much popularity in the media.

The reaction of the international community was mixed. Even the US’s closest ally, Britain, while trying to maintain the appearance of solidarity with Washington, expressed concerns about the consequences. Spokesperson of Russia’s Foreign Ministry Maria Zakharova characterized the act as a cynical ploy, while advising restraint.

The UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres issued a statement advising the parties to avoid an escalation.

China’s reaction was muted. Its Foreign Ministry echoed mostly the UN’s cautious approach.

Similar voices were also heard in Yerevan, and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan stated that Armenia has friendly relations with the US and Iran. Armenia’s top brass held a special meeting and placed the armed forces on alert.

Angela Merkel of Germany decided to take a trip to Moscow, most probably seeking President Vladimir Putin’s mediation as Russia enjoys relatively good relations with Iran and its enemies in the Middle East, i.e. the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

It is under the cover of such troubled times that unexpected mischievous acts are often committed. And indeed, Turkey is out seeking international adventures, trying to add building blocks to its Ottomanist schemes.

As much as Turkey and Russia are cooperating in Syria and Ankara has dared to buy Russian S-400 missile defense systems to Washington’s chagrin, the two have been historical competitors for Iran in the region and that trend continues to date, albeit latently, when Turkey builds up its forces in Azerbaijan and in particular in Nakhichevan, that has a number of ramifications in different directions.

Any observer can see that Turkey’s move is primarily a self-serving one. But from the Russian perspective, Ankara’s action is viewed through a historic context. For NATO planners, it remains a double game, since Turkish military presence brings NATO assets to Iran’s doorsteps while adding another dimension to Russia’s containment.

In light of these moves, the Kremlin’s assurances that it will double the forces of its military base in Gyumri cannot be cause for jubilation because the significance of that base goes beyond the parameters of Armenia’s defense to become a pawn in regional power play and as such it becomes a prime target in a conflagration.

While world attention is focused on the standoff between Washington and Tehran, Turkey’s next mischievous move is in Cyprus.

It is not enough that Turkey has trampled the sovereignty of another country by occupying 38 percent of Cyprus; it claims legal rights for illegally occupied portion of Cyprus in the littoral reserves of oil and gas in the Eastern Mediterranean. As well, Turkey is contemplating constructing a military base in Cyprus.

Since NATO destroyed Libya’s stable government, the country has become a victim of warlords and the Islamist forces have taken refuge in that war-torn country.

Libya was part of the Ottoman Empire and it was lost to Italy in 1912. Now, within the scope of Ottomanist revival and the lure of oil and gas deposits, Ankara has decided to send troops to support one of the rival factions in Libya, namely to Tripoli. Ankara has been fishing in murky waters by signing treaties with one of the factions in Libya before that country recovers from its current fragmentation.

Seth J. Franzman, writing in the January 1 issue of the Jerusalem Post, states, “The play by Turkey has muscle behind it. Ankara has been sending its navy out to conduct drills around Cyprus, showing the flag and its power. Turkey has new sea-based missiles. It is buying new drilling ships. Cyprus thought it was ahead of the curve, signing deals with Egypt in 2003, Lebanon In 2007 and Israel in 2010. But Turkey has thrown down the gauntlet.”

Turkey has also been intimidating Greece by claiming that its littoral rights to drill supercede those of the Greek islands.

President Trump has warned Turkey against sending troops to Libya. But his warnings are not worth any more than his earlier warnings to Ankara not to slaughter Kurds. Egypt has put its naval forces on alert, but the Egyptian army is no match for Turkey. The US arms its allies, like Egypt, to the extent of scaring away their regional enemies but falling short of undermining Israeli military supremacy in the Middle East.

Mr. Erdogan is on another gamble with international implications. While trying to revive the Ottoman dream, he seems to be striving to best Ataturk’s legacy, to endow Turkey with world-class achievements. After the impressive international airport in Istanbul and a new bridge, he is planning to dig a parallel canal to the Strait of Bosphorus reportedly to relieve traffic. The “Istanbul Canal” is estimated to cost anywhere from $20 to $75 billion and is strongly criticized by the opposition. Besides that domestic hurdle, the project has also international implications. The shipping lanes of the Bosphorus are regulated by the Treaty of Montreux of 1936. Should a parallel canal be built, it will call for the revision of that treaty, which in turn will affect all of it signatories. Some observers also believe that the move will exacerbate Russian-Turkish relations and push the parties towards a confrontation.

The former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkey Ahmet Davutoglu believes that the subject nations of the Ottoman Empire were in idyllic relations with their tormentors. Mr. Erdogan shares that view, too. That bloody rule has been anything but idyllic. It has been a dirty curse for the peoples in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

Its resurgence cannot promise anything better.

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