Tuesday,21 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1259, (20 - 26 August 2015)
Tuesday,21 August, 2018
Issue 1259, (20 - 26 August 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Egypt, the Arabs and the Turkish-American deal

Ankara’s deal with Washington for the latter to use Turkish airspace in the fight against the Islamic State appears innocuous, but strategically it entails closing a circle on Egypt, writes Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

On Wednesday, 12 August, the first American fighter planes flew from Turkish bases to strike Islamic State (IS) targets in Syria. After a year of the expansion of IS into Iraq and Syria and more than 5,000 sorties by the international coalition to degrade and defeat IS, the Turkish government finally allowed the coalition to carry out air strikes from its territory.

Talks between the Americans and the Turks had been underway for some time, for almost six months. The Turks wanted the coalition to further Turkish interests in Syria in return for allowing air strikes against IS targets from Incirlik Air Base.

No observers know for sure the details  or, I would rather, say the fine details  of the deal struck between Washington and Ankara. The Americans keep to generalities and, understandably, they politely decline to talk about what the Turks gained from the deal.

Publicly, the Turkish government has agreed to join the fight against IS, and the Americans have given a nod for the government in Ankara to go after the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in its bases in northern Iraq and on the Syrian-Turkish border.

At the same time, press reports indicate that the Americans do not now mind the establishment of a secured zone in northern Syria to house Syrian refugees on Turkish territory.

The Turks and their allies against Bashar Al-Assad of Syria have long called for the establishment of a no-fly zone in the northern part of Syria, on the pretext of providing a safe haven for refugees.

The Americans had been reluctant to accept such an idea, and it is not quite clear whether the deal they struck with the Turkish government foresees such an eventuality sometime in the forseeable future.

But if things go that far, no one should be surprised. Another unstated reason for this no-fly zone has been to turn this swath of land into a training ground for the so-called forces of the “moderate” Syrian opposition. It will also provide these forces with a safe haven within Syria, to protect them against both the Syrian army and IS, and other militias that operate under different Islamist banners.

The Turkish-American deal poses a direct threat to Egypt and other Arab powers, not to mention the Syrian government, which was warned by the US administration not to interfere with coalition air strikes inside Syria. Forget the UN Charter and the right of self-defence enshrined in it.

The deal gives Turkey the right to conduct military operations on Arab territories without Arab consent. Things are getting more complicated, from an Arab point of view, when this deal is analysed in a larger regional perspective. The deal between the United States and Turkey comes less than a month after the Vienna accord of 14 July between the P5+1 and Iran, which will allow Iran to return to the regional arena.

From a strategic point of view, this would give a free hand for Iran to interfere in Arab affairs without being contained by Western powers, particularly the United States, as long as the Iranians respect certain red lines; foremost, Israel’s security. The Turkish-American deal and the Vienna accord, combined, squarely encircle the Arabs from the north and the east.

What is striking in these ominous strategic shifts in the Middle East is the absence of Arab reaction. On the contrary, some Arab powers are following policies that go in the direction of this encirclement of the Middle East by non-Arab powers. The future of Syria is a case in point.

I believe that the United States will acede to Turkey pushing militarily, whether directly or indirectly, to remove President Al-Assad from power. The Turkish foreign minister, Mevult Cavusoglu, said in an interview on 13 August that his country “does not expect to deploy ground forces in Syria to fight Islamic State,” but that the option “should remain on the table.” He added, “This is my personal opinion.”

We are not accustomed to foreign ministers airing their personal opinions on such weighty matters. In fact, we should replace “Islamic State” in this quote with “the Syrian government.” The United States, in my opinion, knows that. The Arabs probably know that. The question is: Will they accept such a scenario?

I am sure Egypt will not, but what are the cards that Cairo could use to prevent the Turks from toppling the regime of a major Arab power that is the strategic border of Egypt to the north? Will the Cairo Declaration signed on 30 July by Egypt and Saudi Arabia be enough to forestall the meddling of both Turkey and Iran, with the implicit consent of the Americans, in Arab affairs?

This declaration, in case it is fully implemented, is for the long haul. Of course, the main sticking point in this respect is the role of Al-Assad in the future of Syria. Is he part of the problem or part of the solution?

The Saudi foreign minister was quite explicit during the joint press conference with his Russian counterpart this week. He insisted that the Syrian president must go, or else he will be overthrown by military means. It was a surprising statement by a foreign minister of an Arab country talking about another Arab country’s crisis.

Egypt, for its part, wants to preserve state institutions in Syria, foremost the Syrian army, lest another Libya emerge to its northern areas. The future of Al-Assad must not be a reason for the disintegration of Syria, or Damascus falling under a pro-Turkish regime.

Hopefully, Egyptian diplomacy can convince the Saudis to think strategically rather than tactically  not only in Syria, but also elsewhere in the Middle East  if we really want to contain and defeat the Turkish and Iranian encirclement, encouraged, whether directly or indirectly, by the US administration. We have no other option.

The writer is a former assistant to the foreign minister.

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