Ankara's recent steps to reposition itself in the region is looking increasingly like a comprehensive strategy to counter Iranian efforts and Russian aggression that, together, undermine the area's stability and threaten vital Turkish interests in Syria.
First, Turkey stepped up its efforts to reconcile with Israel over the 2010 Mavi Marmara raid. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for the first time in many years declared last week that Turkey needs Israel as a friend in the region. Second, Erdoğan strengthened his country's alliance with Saudi Arabia by establishing a strategic partnership council between the two countries. To his advantage, the U.S.'s regional allies, which include Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Gulf countries, are not happy with the current U.S. policy in the Middle East. It is viewed as a weak approach focused on appeasing Iranian ambitions in the area.
U.S. President Barack Obama's administration expects Iran's help to ease Israeli concerns about possible nuclear aggression and to push Syrian President Bashar Assad to the negotiating table. However, Saudi and Israeli officials, along with those from Arab countries, are dissatisfied with this approach because they believe Iran's ambitions in the region threaten their national security. Following Saudi Arabia's King Salman's decision to severe diplomatic ties with Iran, a Saudi insider in Washington told The Associated Press on Monday: "Every time Iran does something, the United States backs off." The insider certainly has a point because last week the U.S. administration backtracked on the implementation of a new wave of sanctions on Iran for its recent ballistic missile tests, which were in complete disregard for the United Nations prohibition on such actions.
Of perhaps greater concern was that the White House also kept the public in the dark about the USS Harry S. Truman's recent encounter with an Iranian battalion in the Strait of Hormuz. The Iranians had tried to provoke a U.S. response by launching a rocket within approximately 1,370 meters of the ship.
Even liberal circles in the United States, including The New York Times, questioned whether the U.S. still needs Saudi Arabia as a regional ally when Iran, another theocracy with severe human rights violations, is becoming amenable. Certainly, those who think Iran is about to bring peace to the Middle East fail to understand Arab concerns and Iranian ambitions. Iran has already backed Assad, the tyrant in Syria, and effectively hijacked Iraqi state mechanisms through its generals and advisers. Yemen is also in a terrible state due to Iran-led provocations that pushed Saudi Arabia to intervene. All of the Gulf countries, according to a study by the Pew Forum in 2009, have considerable Shiite minorities that could be agitated by Iran - 10 percent to 15 percent in Saudi Arabia, 10 percent in Qatar, 5 percent to 10 percent in Oman and 10 percent in the United Arab Emirates. Bahrain is the exception as its Shiite population is the majority at 65 percent to 75 percent of the population.
Iran also pursued a policy against Turkey's efforts to settle the Kurdish question by negotiation and tried to destabilize Iraqi Kurdistan by playing main opposition parties against Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani, a key ally for Ankara. Iran's efforts to crash Syria's moderate opposition, its absolute support for former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's sectarian policies and finally its propaganda against Erdoğan's family also alienated Ankara from Tehran.
The Israeli government is naturally unhappy with the Iranian nuclear settlement and is concerned about increasing Iranian influence in the region. There is also Russia's troubling military presence in Syria, which is already paving ways to transfer advanced weapons to Iran-backed Hezbollah. This is why Ankara came up with this new rapprochement and decided to put aside less important differences with Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Turkey's third step might be related to Egypt. The regime of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi already expressed its wishes to repair relations with Ankara. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry last week said that he was hopeful for normalization between the two countries, "which is a necessity."
In addition, on Monday Egypt's mitigation of death and life sentences of several Muslim Brotherhood figures satisfied a key demand by Erdoğan that it be one of the prerequisites for the normalization of relations.