The diplomatic revolution of July 2013 and the future of the Middle East
The term “diplomatic revolution” has been traditionally used to denote sudden changes in the balance of power or the international system that defy all existing assumptions observers of international affairs rely upon. Its origins date to 1756 when France and Austria, who’s struggle for dominance in Europe had driven almost every major continental war for 250 years, suddenly abandoned enmity and signed an alliance. This in turn triggering a cascading reshuffling of alliances in areas of secondary conflict in Europe as nations who had previously functioned as proxies for either France or the Hapsburgs had to adapt to an entirely new international system.
In July of 2013, an almost equally sudden and decisive “diplomatic revolution” has transformed the politics of the Middle East. For the last three years, the Middle East has been divided into two “camps”; a Sunni Islamist axis centered around the Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan, backed implicitly by the United States and Europe, and a loose coalition of Iran, Iraq, and Hezbollah, backed implicitly by China and Russia. In turn, the major areas of conflict in the region, Lebanon, Syria, the Palestinian territories, featured proxy fights between clients of these alignments.
No longer; the fall of Mohamad Morsi in Egypt, the election of Hassen Rouhani in Iran, and the political crisis that has gripped Turkey have all combined to reshuffle alliances and alignments in the region. The Sunni axis, which appeared on the verge of achieving victory for its rebel proxies in Syria in early June has all but vanished, and those rebels now find themselves more friendless than their enemy Bashir Assad was a little over a month ago.
This transformation is one that was almost inconceivable on June 13 2013. On that day, United States President Barack Obama announced that, having concluded that the regime of Bashir Assad had used chemical weapons against its own people, the United States would begin providing “lethal” assistance to the Syrian opposition. Coming on the heels of the government of Egyptian President Mohamad Morsi’s decision to break relations with the Damascus government, it appeared that after months of procrastination, the international community was finally prepared to unite in support of Assad’s overthrow.
A month and a half later, such expectations have been turned on their head. The promised US aid has failed to materialize; under determined criticism from both right and left, its delivery was repeatedly delayed before being blocked indefinitely by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. Distracted by revelations of NSA Spying, events in Egypt and Turkey, along with a series of domestic controversies, the Obama Administration has demonstrated neither the will nor the ability to overcome domestic opposition to its Syria policy.
If increased American aid has failed to materialize, the regional balance of power has also shifted dramatically in Assad’s favour. The June 30th overthrow of the President Mohamad Morsi in Egypt, eliminated one of the opposition’s most prominent foreign sponsors. Already sceptical of ideological links between Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and elements in the Free Syrian Army, any prospect that the new military backed regime in Cairo would continue Morsi’s support of the opposition even in a reduced capacity have likely been dashed by the diplomatic confrontation that has erupted between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Cairo authorities. Erdogan has refused to recognize the new government in Cairo, called for the reinstatement of Morsi who he insists is still President, and denounced liberal and secular elements who were perceived as supporting the coup. Combined with his own suppression of secular and liberal protests, Erdogan’s actions have served not only to turn him into a figure of suspicion if not loathing among both the Egyptian army and its liberal-secular allies, but to extend that suspicion to the Syrian opposition which is largely perceived in Egypt as Erdogan protégés. Far from being a matter of indifference, ruling elements in Egypt appear to increasingly see an Assad victory as a desirable outcome, as demonstrated by the July 20th announcement that Egypt would resume diplomatic relations with Damascus.
If he is still far better off than Morsi, Erdogan’s own position has also deteriorated over the last month, with serious implications for both Turkey’s influence in the region, and its relationship with its hitherto Western allies. Continued protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park have polarized the country, and brought increased attention to the increasingly authoritarian nature of his rule. More importantly, the violent nature both of the government’s response to the protests and of Erdogan’s rhetoric has all but obliterated his image as a reforming “liberal” leader in the region. This has not only undermined his position in Europe and America, contributing to the reluctance of the US congress for what is perceived among many Republicans as the Obama Administration’s Pro-Turkish Middle Eastern policy, but also the appeal of the Turkish model of “Democratic Islam”. With the Turkish model looking like a road dictatorship, public opinion in the Arab world, especially among the younger generation has begun to turn against what increasingly appears to be a war to impose that model on Syria.
Much of that support was in any event motivated by the perception that the war in Syria was a proxy battle between Turkey and Iran, and if events in Istanbul have undermined the appeal of the Turkish model, events in Tehran have also reduced fear of Iran. The election of Hassan Rouhani to the Iranian Presidency on June 19th to succeed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has put a softer, more democratic face on the Iranian regime, and Rouhani has made reconciliation with the “conservative” Sunni states one of his key priorities as President-elect. Rumours, not denied by Rouhani’s staff, of a trip to Saudi Arabia surfaced in a Saudi Newspaper on July 10th, and it would be far from surprising if Rouhani also makes a stop in Cairo.
This prospect of an Egyptian-Iranian-Saudi axis would have been inconceivable only a little over a month ago, and underlines exactly how transformative recent events have been for the region, and should act as a warning for analysts to invest too much confidence in the status. Right now it’s far from clear that Assad will win, or that the new government will remain in power in Egypt, and its fall would almost certainly trigger another reshuffle of regional alliances. Nonetheless, it’s already fair to say that there have been few months as eventful as June-July of 2013.