Monday, February 12, 2007

A new world is taking shape around war-torn Iraq, and the countries of the region do not directly stand up against the United States but are seeking alternative alliances as a result of its deterioration. There is no longer hope for colored revolutions, but “[t]hree potential tinderboxes in the Middle East,” according to Jordan’s King Abdullah II. “If I was to put it in [order of] priority,” he said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, “I would say the Palestinians, the Lebanese and Iraq.”

At one time, Iraq was supposed to catalyze the “domino effect” of democracy and peace in the region. Now, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rightly says she does not believe Israeli-Palestinian peace is key to solving other regional conflicts. The February 2003 remarks of Javad Zarif, Iran’s ambassador to the U.N. Security Council, were particularly telling: “One outcome [of a war in Iraq] is almost certain: Extremism stands to benefit enormously from an uncalculated adventure in Iraq.”

The United States now seems to be perilously close to losing its credibility and effectiveness as extremism flourishes. The day after the Jordanian king’s remarks, Saudi King Abdullah said the Palestinian issue was an Arab prerogative: “We don’t want any country to use our business in its interests and become stronger,” he said. While that statement was widely interpreted to be a hint about Iran, the Saudi king knows he can’t square off against Iran militarily or believes it is to his interest not to continue dwelling on sectarian politics, so he is choosing to cooperate. This week’s inaugural visit to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan by Russian President Vladimir Putin should be viewed through the same prism.

Mr. Putin has managed to stay close with both Iran and Hamas. Although the agreement signed in Mecca between Hamas and Fatah has been one of the shortest-lived breakthroughs in the Middle East peace process — hours after the deal was done, Hamas announced it would not recognize Israel — almost all the regional players still support it. Mr. Putin believes establishing contact with Hamas after its victory in the Palestinian elections was the right thing to do, even if Hamas refused to lay down its arms, recognize Israel or continue peace negotiations. “Hamas carried the elections,” Mr. Putin said. “What is democracy? It is the power of people. Some people are always harping to us [that] it is necessary to respect the choice of people. So, respect!”

The Turkish government in Ankara also welcomed Hamas in the same vein. In the U.S.-Turkey strategic vision document last year, the United States accepted a larger role for Turkey in Middle East politics. That document was meant to show continued trust between the two countries. Turkey has no such document with Moscow, but its view of the region today is much closer to that of Mr. Putin than of Washington. Undoubtedly Ankara would agree with the Russian president’s statement last week that “Washington’s unilateral, militaristic approach has made the world a more dangerous place than at any time during the cold war.”

The visit to Washington last week by Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul should be seen the same way. “There is no need to egg the Palestinian people on one another, as well as its organizations,” Mr. Putin said. “This is an erroneous practice and theory, since this theory — divide and rule — will not bring about anything good. It will only drive the situation into a dead-end.” When Mr. Gul met with Vice President Dick Cheney, he said, Mr. Cheney was interested in energy issues. But the United States acknowledged the trip with only a brief photo opportunity with Miss Rice, during which she took no questions.

Some Turkish reporters framed the visit as if the Bush administration’s continued support of the Justice and Development Party hinges on Turkey’s presidential election in April and general national election in November. Mystifyingly, even the most sophisticated Turkish media cannot give up the notion that the White House influences the Turkish elections. Either they don’t understand how frustrated the Turkish people are with U.S. policies and don’t recognize Mr. Bush’s support could prove toxic for any party, or they do understand it and are trying to make a point. Confusion about the Bush administration’s relationship with the Islamist government persists because of now-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 2002 visit to the White House when he was banned from politics.

Meanwhile, Turkey is trying to sort out how it is going to position itself in this new new world. Should it rely on the U.S. promise to preserve Iraq’s territorial integrity, take direct responsibility on the Kurdish issue and act on separatist PKK terrorists? “I would like to ask here,” said Jordan’s king, “that if the U.S. and Israel are described as one axis, and Iran and some political powers in Syria are described as another, and if the Arabs decided to form another group that is aligned with neither one side nor the other, would that be treason?”

Turkey faces the same predicament. Mr. Putin’s landmark Middle East tour creates a new dimension that cannot be ignored. It certainly could mean Turkey has another option.

Tulin Daloglu is a free-lance writer.

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