In my “Net Assessment of the World,” I argued that four major segments of the European and Asian landmass were in crisis: Europe, Russia, the Middle East (from the Levant to Iran) and China. Each crisis was different; each was at a different stage of development. Collectively the crises threatened to destabilize the Eurasian landmass, the Eastern Hemisphere, and potentially generate a global crisis. They do not have to merge into a single crisis to be dangerous. Four simultaneous crises in the center of humanity’s geopolitical gravity would be destabilizing by itself. However, if they began to merge and interact, the risks would multiply. Containing each crisis by itself would be a daunting task. Managing crises that were interlocked would press the limits of manageability and even push beyond.
These four crises are already interacting to some extent. The crisis of the European Union intersects with the parallel issue of Ukraine and Europe’s relation to Russia. The crisis in the Middle East intersects with the European concern over managing immigration as well as balancing relations with Europe’s Muslim community. The Russians have been involved in Syria, and appear to have played a significant role in the recent negotiations with Iran. In addition there is a potential intersection in Chechnya and Dagestan. The Russians and Chinese have been advancing discussions about military and economic cooperation. None of these interactions threaten to break down regional boundaries. Indeed, none are particularly serious. Nor is some sort of inter-regional crisis unimaginable.
Sitting at the center of these crisis zones is a country that until a few years ago maintained a policy of having no problems with its neighbors. Today, however, Turkey’s entire periphery is on fire. There is fighting in Syria and Iraq to the south, fighting to the north in Ukraine and an increasingly tense situation in the Black Sea. To the west, Greece is in deep crisis (along with the EU) and is a historic antagonist of Turkey. The Mediterranean has quieted down, but the Cyprus situation has not been fully resolved and tension with Israel has subsided but not disappeared. Anywhere Turkey looks there are problems. As important, there are three regions of Eurasia that Turkey touches: Europe, the Middle East and the former Soviet Union.
I have argued two things in the past. The first was that Turkey was an emerging regional power that would ultimately be the major power in its locale. The second was that this is a region that, ever since the decline and fall of the Ottomans in the first quarter of the 20th century, has been kept stable by outside powers. The decision of the United States to take a secondary role after the destabilization that began with the 2003 invasion of Iraq has left a vacuum Turkey will eventually be forced to fill. But Turkey is not ready to fill that vacuum. That has created a situation in which there is a balancing of power underway, particularly among Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
A Proximate Danger
The most violent and the most immediate crisis for Ankara is the area stretching from the Mediterranean to Iran, and from Turkey to Yemen. The main problem for Turkey is that Syria and Iraq have become contiguous battlegrounds featuring a range of forces, including Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish elements. These battles take place in a cauldron formed by four regional powers: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey. This quadrangle emerged logically from the mayhem caught between them.
Each major power has differing strategic interests. Iran’s primary interest is the survival of the establishment and in assuring that an aggressive Sunni polity does not arise in Iraq to replicate the situation Tehran faced with Saddam Hussein. Iran’s strategy is to support anti-Sunni forces in the region. This support ranges from bolstering Hezbollah in Lebanon, propping up the minority Alawite establishment in Syria led — for the moment — by Bashar al Assad, and assisting the Iraqi army, itself controlled by Shiites and Iraq’s Shiite militias. The United States sees Iran as aligned with American interests for the moment, since both countries oppose the Islamic State and Tehran is important when it comes to containing the militant group. The reality on the ground has made this the most important issue between Iran and the United States, which frames the recent accord on nuclear weapons.
Saudi Arabia sees Iran as its primary enemy. Riyadh also views the Islamic State as a threat but at the same time fears that an Iraq and Syria dominated by Iran could present an existential threat to the House of Saud. The Saudis consider events in Yemen from a similar perspective. Also in this context, Riyadh perceives a common interest with Israel in containing Iranian militant proxies as well as the Islamic State. Who exactly the Saudis are supporting in Syria and Iraq is somewhat murky, but the kingdom has no choice but to play a tactical and opportunistic game.
The Israelis are in a similar position to the Saudis. They oppose the Iranians, but their main concern must be to make certain that the Hashemites in Jordan don’t lose control of the country, opening the door to an Islamic State move on the Jordan River. Jordan appears stable for the moment and Israel and the Saudis see this as a main point of their collaboration. In the meantime, Israel is playing a wait-and-see game with Syria. Assad is no friend to the Israelis, but a weak Assad is better than a strong Islamic State rule. The current situation in Syria suits Israel because a civil war limits immediate threats. But the conflict is itself out of control and the risk is that someone will win. Israel must favor Assad and that aligns them on some level with Iran, even as Israel works with Sunni players like Saudi Arabia to contain Iranian militant proxies. Ironies abound.
It is in this context that the Turks have refused to make a clear commitment, either to traditional allies in the West or to the new potential allies that are yet emerging. Partly this is because no one’s commitments — except the Iranians’ — are clear and irrevocable, and partly because the Turks don’t have to commit unless they want to. They are deeply opposed to the Assad regime in Syria, and logic would have it that they are supporting the Islamic State, which also opposes the Syrian regime. As I have said before, there are endless rumors in the region that the Turks are favoring and aiding the Islamic State. These are rumors that Turkey has responded to by visibly and seriously cracking down on the Islamic State in recent weeks with significant border activity and widespread raids. The Turks know that the militants, no matter what the currently confrontational relationship might be, could transition from being a primarily Arab platform to being a threat to Turkey. There are some who say that the Turks see the Islamic State as creating the justification for a Turkish intervention in Syria. The weakness of this argument is that there has been ample justification that Ankara has declined, even as its posture toward the Islamic State becomes more aggressive.
This shows in Turkey’s complex relations with the United States, still formally