Turkey’s rise on the world stage will no doubt be credited by many to be a direct result of the turmoil and chaos in the Middle East. That, though, would be a serious underestimation of a regional power that makes every move with the precision of a chess grand master.
Some of those who have underrated the country and its President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are only now beginning to wake up to the stealth and dominance of the Turks in the field of international diplomacy and politics. The US and Saudi Arabia, who have both used eye-watering amounts of money to buy influence, lost both in Syria and neither saw it coming until it was too late. The dramatic collapse and fall of Aleppo put both on the wrong side of a checkmate. I use the chess analogy in all seriousness.
The ever-changing political power games in the region remind me of the famous World Chess Championships of 1972 between US challenger Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky of the then Soviet Union. The build-up was massive as Fischer ended — for a brief period only — Soviet domination of the game.
Fischer vs Spassky was hailed as the “Match of the Century”. I was just a teenager at the time but the excitement generated pulled me in, and although I still struggle to play with any great distinction, I can see how chess strategy can lend itself to the complexities of international diplomacy.
In terms of political influence in the Middle East, Moscow is still very much the dominant force, but now there’s a jostling for position between Turkey and the equally-calculating Iranians. The US and Europeans can only watch from the sidelines having being eliminated because of confused and mixed messages over support for the Syrian rebels and the lack of support for no-fly zones and humanitarian aid corridors.
Europe’s dithering over visa waiver deals for Turks has also upset Ankara and then there is the “who knew what?” guessing game over last year’s failed coup. Many Turks believe that the US, at best, knew of the plot against Erdogan in advance; at worst, that it helped to finance the coup, although this might be one for the conspiracy theorists to thrash out. Meanwhile, dark forces in Britain, the US and some European states are suspected of trying to foment unrest to destabilise Erdogan’s position.
Whatever the truth is, it also seems that Turkey and Iran, having sidelined all other international figures apart from Russia, are now set on a collision course for dominance in the region. The pair have largely ignored one another as they’ve gone about neutralising or knocking out a variety of opponents from East to West using the skills of grandmasters in a game taken up more than a thousand years ago by the Muslim world after the Arabs conquered Persia.
Erdogan made his opening move against Iran earlier this month when he blamed “Persian Nationalism” for the crisis in the Middle East, and his Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, accused Tehran of engaging in “sectarian warfare”. These were strong, bold moves, no doubt bolstered by US President Donald Trump putting Iran “on notice” for testing a ballistic missile as a show of strength.
The world can only watch and wait as the two play out their moves but you can be sure that every word will be carefully crafted and polished before being put into play. Both will also exploit Trump’s bluff and bluster to their own advantage, and while neither really trust Putin it is, at the end of the day, his influence that they will seek to win, for whoever emerges triumphant will have Moscow’s ear and, as a direct consequence, influence over Damascus.
We can be sure that Damascus is the prize that both Tehran and Ankara seek for either to move forward with their ambitions. Russia, which has now secured naval and air force bases in Syria, appears to be growing tired of Middle East politics and has made it clear that it no longer holds any great loyalty towards the Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad.
Those who stand to lose the most in the short term should Turkey emerge triumphant in its war of words with Tehran are Daesh and Assad, as well as the Kurds. As such, Erdogan’s Saudi and Gulf allies will likely show their gratitude in the only way they know how, paying hard cash to finance the creation of a safe zone in northern Syria.
As long as this is not costing US tax payers anything, the Trump administration will almost certainly support the creation of a Turkish-controlled humanitarian corridor in the region, especially if it upsets the Iranians. The US president will also claim this to be an American victory; his victory. On Planet Trump, mere details and facts are not all that important.
These are just a few of the many machinations that Erdogan and his Iranian opponents have to consider as this gripping and deadly game of chess unfolds. It will have some very serious consequences indeed, not just for the people of the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.