In 2011, Turkey was seen as an unstoppable regional power and a rising star led by its Development and Justice Party (AKP). But the arrival of Arab uprisings heralded a deep change in the region. Turkey’s prominence began to fade and Iran’s potential appeared to be rising with the progress it is making in nuclear negotiations. Further developments in the region have continued to surprise observers, especially the emergence of the ascendant force that is the Islamic State (ISIS).
Until the Arab revolts began, many believed Turkey would enjoy a bright future as a leader in the region under the AKP. Most Arabs were eager to emulate the Turkish model of democracy and economic success. Many politicians established and named their parties after the ruling AKP, and Turkish products and soap operas were flooding Arab markets and homes.
With his charisma and rhetoric, former Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was seen by most frustrated Arabs as a saviour, a leader who cared for his neighbours and had qualities their own dictators lacked – especially his open opposition to Israeli policies and practices against the Palestinians. Nonetheless, as the Arab uprisings continued, a shift began to take place.
Turkey lost territory in Syria, upset the Gulf States, further strained its lukewarm relations with Iraq, entered into conflict with Israel and finally saw its relations with Egypt deteriorate. And Turkey’s challenges didn’t end at its doorstep. With the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul and the 2013 corruption scandals involving a number of AKP ministers, the problems turned out to be domestic as well.
The June election is considered the biggest blow suffered by the Turkish AKP since its inception in 2001 – threatening to end a 13-year single-party rule in Turkey. Although the AKP was able to make strong comeback when it won decisive majority at the parliament in the November 1st elections, the impact of the previous results along with the shaking regional and domestic grounds would definitely affect Turkey’s ability to manoeuvre or act as it did before.
Meanwhile, as Turkey’s regional star is setting, other stars are rising. Iran, for example, is a regional power with considerable potential. Its closest allies in the region (the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Huthi in Yemen) have been under tremendous pressure, and their power and leverage has been declining significantly. But although Iran has suffered a great deal since the advent of the Arab uprisings, the nuclear deal reached with the P5+1 countries (the US, UK, Russia, France, China and Germany) will bolster its position over time by lifting decades long imposed sanctions. It will furthermore allow Iran to export its oil again. The re-emergence of such a huge exporter will undoubtedly hurt Russia’s economy. It will also lead eventually to unfreezing many more of Iran’s assets – in 2014 the US unfroze $1 billion (€913 million).
If this happens, there is no question that Iran, which could build a network of regional allies and preserve its military capabilities with an immense arsenal of weapons, will become a rising economic power as well. As such, one can expect Iran’s allies, mainly Shiite groups, to receive a big boost as well.
A remarkable third player has been emerging on the Arab stage: ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). The group arose from the remnants of dissolved regimes, failed dictatorships and an austere interpretation of Islam. ISIS has imposed and reinforced its presence and influence across the Middle East. The emergence of ISIS has turned the whole region on its head. Puritanism has swept the Arab world and a new vocabulary – one of apostates, infidels and heretics – has become commonplace. In the blink of an eye, ISIS was able to eliminate borders and take control of large swaths of Iraq and Syria.
The 60-plus members of the US-led anti-Islamic State coalition have been unable to stop ISIS expansion and the consolidation of its rule. Interestingly, US President Barack Obama announced in July that he believes there is no end in sight to the battle with ISIS, meanwhile stressing that he opposes putting any more US boots on the ground.
ISIS can be understood as a unique representation of the entangled interests and relations in the region. Through ISIS, some powers aim to weaken Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and his closest ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah. Others are eager to use ISIS to keep the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) busy and distracted. A third group is interested in ISIS sparking a sectarian conflict that would drag both Sunni and Shiite extremists into an endless war, therefore “letting the bad guys kill each other”.
US Vice President Joe Biden even accused America’s key allies in the Middle East of allowing the rise of ISIS and supporting it with money and weapons in order to oust the Assad regime. Biden summed up the crux of the issue in his speech at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum: “(US allies) were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni- Shia war.” Similarly, US General Wesley Clark stated that: “ISIS got started with funding from our closest allies … to fight to the death against Hezbollah.”
With the current state of affairs, and in light of the previous election results, deteriorated relations with several countries in the region, economic malaise and domestic violence, one could conclude that AKP’s wings were clipped and Turkey’s foreign policy influence as a regional leader is declining. It is true that the AKP, which in the eyes of many Western countries represents a moderate model of Islamic democracy, will be able to form a single-party government. The AKP’s focus will barely be on dealing with domestic problems and improving its relations with and image in its proximate neighbourhood. While losing the leverage and freedom it used to enjoy, Turkey has a limited number of critical choices to execute the proactive policies it had previously championed in the Middle East. The decline of Turkey will result in the strengthening of other regional forces such as Iran and ISIS. The promising potential of Iran in the region means a new role for the country and perhaps a fresh network of Shiite allies. Meanwhile, the clout and influence of the ISIS – which adheres to a strict Sunni dogma – is growing steadily.
Unfortunately, these developments can only lead to one conclusion: An unavoidable, far-reaching, Sunni-Shiite conflict.