There are two diametrically opposite trends that are manifesting themselves in the Middle-East. One trend is progressive, reconciliatory, and stabilizing; the other trend is disruptive, expansionist (both in terms of territory and a fundamentalist, exclusivist, supremacist and sectarian ideology) and destabilizing. The first trend is represented by the Arab world, led by Saudi Arabia, UAE and their close allies. The second trend is reflected in the shenanigans of Turkey and Iran. Ever since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has stood out as a defiant, often wayward power in the Middle-East. But now, there is another contender — Turkey – which is seeking to expand its footprint in the region, and in the process destabilizing it. In fact, while a lot of attention is focused on the disruptive activities of Iran, not enough is being said about the dubious role of Turkey in disturbing the delicate equilibrium in the region. 

From a time when Turkey, as a member of NATO, and secular democracy, was seen as a pillar of stability in the Middle-East to now when its seen as an overbearing, obstinate, obnoxious country led by an Islamic megalomaniac like Recep Tayyip Erdogan who believes that being rude, offensive, supercilious with other countries and interfering in their affairs is the way to show that Turkey has arrived, it has been a steep fall. Erdogan has all but destroyed democracy in Turkey with his authoritarianism. He has turned on its head modern Turkey’s secular foundations by taking it towards undisguised Islamism. He has muzzled the media in Turkey, jailed opponents and crushed dissent. The regime has brutalized minority ethnic groups like the Kurds, literally bombarding their homes and hearths. He has flirted with ISIS terrorists, and there are serious allegations that his family (his son) has profited from his association with ISIS. Erdogan has blackmailed Europe by threatening to unleash waves of refugees, threatened war on a fellow NATO ally – Greece — interfered in the civil war in Libya, tried to flirt with the Muslim Brotherhood, even patronize them, to cause disturbances in the Arab World. He has riled Egypt because of his support for Muslim Brotherhood, encroached in Syria to prop up his own favorites , dared Russia by shooting down its aircraft, and then like a coward bent over backwards to appease the Russian President. He has tried to cock a snook at the US by entering into defense deals with Russia, despite being a member of NATO. Erdogan has tried to confront Israel and like a total hypocrite criticized UAE and Bahrain for recognizing Israel and opening up diplomatic relations with it. Further in South Asia, in India, he has tried to interfere in India and has patronized Kashmiri separatists by giving them money, media access and even training. And all of this is being done while the Turkish economy has gone into a tailspin.

Given his megalomania and pretensions for reviving the Caliphate (of course anointing himself as the neo-Caliph), Erdogan has done everything possible to disturb the Middle-East just so he can re-establish Turkey’s pre-eminence in the region. That the Turkish Empire was in decline for more than a hundred years before it disappeared in the early 20th century after the First World War seems to have been ignored by him. And while Erdogan throws his weight around, he forgets that the world is no longer in the medieval ages where his antics could work. Whatever Turkey has gained over the years has been because of the reforms that Kemal Ataturk initiated and the close association with the West. Erdogan now seems hell-bent on undoing for the sake of self-aggrandizement. What he is now trying to do is to reclaim the leadership of the Islamic world — part of his delusions of reviving the Caliphate. The problem is that the world today is a lot more complicated than it was when the TV manufactured mythical hero of Erdogan, Ertugrul, laid the foundations of the Ottoman Empire. It seems that Erdogan has convinced himself that just like Ertugrul exploited the chaos of the 13 century to lay the foundation of his dynasty, Erdogan hopes to do the same by exploiting, and if necessary creating, chaos in the 21st  century. His playbook isn’t that complicated, even if his mind and calculations are quite convoluted, even sinister.

What Erdogan is playing for is the leadership of the Islamic world. But this world revolves broadly around three axes. One axis comprises the Arab world led by Saudi Arabia, UAE and their allies. The second axis is Iran and the Persian/Shia segment of the Islamic world. And the third axis revolves around Turkey and comprises the Turkic people. Then there are the outliers – the Pakistan type countries – which can follow one or the other but cannot lead the Islamic World. Erdogan has to undermine the Arab and Persian axes if he has to lay the foundation of Turkey becoming the centre of the Islamic world again. He realizes that the Arab world today is rich and powerful. More importantly, it has powerful allies and friends. But he hopes to weaken the Arab states by exploiting their fault lines — internal divisions and power play by agitating the Arab street. This he believes is the biggest vulnerability. And this is precisely where he is focusing on. For now, he is aligning with Iran, or at least making some common cause, but conflict is inbuilt in this equation. The Persians are loath to accept Turkic overlordship. Plus there are serious sectarian, ethnic, linguistic and cultural divisions between the Persian/Shia axis and the Turkic/Sunni axis.

Once Erdogan has destabilized the Arab World, he thinks he will be able to exploit Iran’s fault lines far more effectively than either the Arabs or the sole superpower – the US. The support that the West will give to the Arabs can be countered by making a new alliance with countries like Russia, and to an extent, China. The ferment in the region is seen as being conducive to Erdogan’s strategic game plan and he is all set to go all in to fulfil his ambition. Cut to the chase, Erdogan and Turkey are today playing the most destabilizing game in the Middle-East, by trying to get their fingers in every pie, exploit every fracture and light a fire everywhere there is some inflammable material available. Only through disruption, destabilization, dislocation and finally destruction and devastation can something new emerge in the Middle-East and when that happens, Erdogan will go down in history as the new Ertugrul, but if only wishes were horses.





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