How Jerusalem issue plays into Iranian, Turkish (and Russian) hands
Iran has, predictably enough, taken a hard line on the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. There were public demonstrations in several Iranian cities following Friday prayers and statements by President Hassan Rouhani and other senior politicians. Notably, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, warned: “Al-Quds (Jerusalem) will be the place where the Zionist regime will be buried.”
It was Turkey’s reaction that set the mind thinking that the ground beneath our feet is shifting, however. President Recep Erdogan used exceptional language in his response, calling Israel a “terrorist” state. His stance is important for a variety of reasons. Turkey is currently chairing the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and has called for an emergency summit in Istanbul on Wednesday. This puts Erdogan in the driving seat.
The OIC has traditionally kowtowed to Saudi Arabia. But the Saudi regime finds itself on the defensive at the moment. The unsavory talk in the bazaar is that King Salman and the Crown Prince have played footsie with Trump and Jared Kushner. Erdogan hears bazaar gossip, for sure. Will the OIC recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Palestine? This is a possibility.
Both Iran and Turkey repudiate the notion of Jerusalem being Israel’s capital. Iran has brought into play the politics of “resistance,” whereas Erdogan stresses “We will continue our struggle decisively within the law and democracy.” The distinction must be noted – but then, so must the degree of convergence.
Iran and Turkey have both long wished for an end to Saudi Arabia calling the shots in the Muslim Middle East. Now that the issue of Jerusalem has come to the fore, the Saudi regime must be wary of being seen to coordinate with Israel, or dancing to Trump’s tune.
The Saudi regime is also grappling with the quagmire in Yemen, where it is shedding “Muslim blood.” Pressure will now increase to end the war in there. Rouhani put forth on Sunday two preconditions to normalize ties with Saudi Arabia – stop “bowing” to Israel and, secondly, end the war in Yemen.
For Erdogan, Jerusalem becomes another platform to advance his strategic defiance of the US. Of course, the trial in a Manhattan federal court to discredit Erdogan now becomes almost an irrelevance. If pushed any further, Erdogan may hit back by breaking Turkey’s relations with Israel, as he has hinted at already. Doing so will, of course, make him a cult hero on the Arab Street.
To be sure, the damage to American prestige and credibility in the Middle East has grave implications for the Syrian situation. Unsurprisingly, President Vladimir Putin was due to land in Ankara late on Monday for a face-to-face conversation with Erdogan.
Erdogan is furious about the Pentagon’s continued supply of weapons to the Kurdish militia. Top Turkish officials have openly threatened that they’ll teach the US a painful lesson. Neither Turkey nor Russia (nor Iran) wants an open-ended US military presence in Syria. They may well seek to keep the US out in the cold via talks in Astana.
The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, has ruled out any prospect of the US gaining – under whatever pretext – access to Syria’s Mediterranean coast. He said point-blank on Friday: “There are no plans with the United States on this specific region (Idlib) of Syria. I believe that’s totally counterproductive.” In sum, Turkey, Russia and Iran will ultimately decide how long the US military presence in Syria is tolerated.
The power dynamic is likely to change further than expected, since the Jerusalem issue effectively debilitates the Saudis. Ironically, the Syrian peace process probably has its greatest chance of success (on Russian-Turkish-Iranian terms, of course.)
What’s happening in Iraq and Syria are also out in the open. Libya, Egypt and Yemen are also experiencing serious problems. This Jerusalem step shows how some have been taking advantage of this situation. We need to be vigilant as Muslim
Erdogan openly links the US decision on Jerusalem with its policies on other regional conflicts. He said on Sunday: “What’s happening in Iraq and Syria are also out in the open. Libya, Egypt and Yemen are also experiencing serious problems. This Jerusalem step shows how some (read US and Israel) have been taking advantage of this situation. We need to be vigilant as Muslims.”
The Arab states have tended to pay mere lip service to the Palestine issue. Now, for the first time, the baton of leadership is passing into non-Arab (Turkish-Iranian) hands, and Palestine is now a Muslim rather than an Arab issue – something Iran has always sought. It is a historic transition that underscores the diminished Saudi clout in regional politics. Arguably, the sectarian card becomes useless now in terms of isolating Iran.
Ultimately, then, the question must be posed: Who really stands to gain from Trump’s decision on Jerusalem? Evidently, like in the Boyzone song, words are all Israel’s got. On the other hand, Israel’s pet project – the rollback of Iran – runs into headwinds and may have to be mothballed. Any Israeli intervention in Syria to counter Iran’s presence becomes almost suicidal in such a supercharged situation.
Erdogan has pledged that: “With the roadmap that we will determine (at the OIC summit), we will show that the realization of this decision (moving the US embassy) will not be easy at all.” He means it. If the US’ game plan was to get the Saudis to open a parallel track and push Jared Kushner’s peace plan, Erdogan will shoot it down. Turkey, Iran and Qatar are sure to promote Hamas as the authentic voice of the Palestinian people.
Trump hates to be a “loser.” Erdogan says the US president is pandering to his evangelical constituency. Does that make Trump a “winner”? The US election in 2020 seems light years away.