2012 Year In Review: Meet The Middle East's New Power Brokers: Democratic Egypt, Anti-Assad Turkey

 @MayaErgas
on December 24 2012 3:22 PM

It was the year of new powers rising in the Middle East. It's hard to believe that it's been less than two years since many of these nations began to take their first steps toward overthrowing their governments, engaging in their first demonstrations, and their first clashes with police, earning their first sternly worded U.N. Security Council Resolutions. They certainly grow up so fast, don't they?

Or not, as in the case of Syria, which is still staggering, bleeding and moaning under the weight of tens of thousands dead and millions displaced, toward what the world hopes is the world's next Middle East democracy.

As Syria lurches toward what foreign nations hope is a finish line nearly in sight to the 21-month bloodbath, regional power Turkey has emerged as one of the new players to be reckoned in the bloody chess game that is Middle East politics.

Once content to define itself as Europe's "Muslim cousin" and NATO's eastern flank, Turkey has struck out boldly on its own in the Syrian crisis. In the past few months, as the bloody conflict began to leak in bits, pieces and misfired Scud missiles into neighboring Turkey, Lebanon and Israel, only Turkey has responded firmly.

The Syrian missiles that landed over Turkey's southern border in September have sparked their own mini-arms race of threats and weapons deployments, interspersed with reassurances from both sides that neither party wants another war. The NATO deployment of Patriot missiles showed the world that the West was clearly coming down on the side of Turkey, and by extension, dealt another blow to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's legitimacy.

Now, as one of Assad's most outspoken critics and the reluctant host to more than 135,000 Syrian refugees crammed into its border camps, Turkey will likely try to have a hand in rebuilding Syria after Assad either dies or flees. Turkey's substantial but persecuted Kurdish minority may see its ranks swell with the addition of Syrian Kurds who do not wish to return, further exacerbating the ethnic division and "apartheid" that many claim is ingrained in Turkey's constitution.

As relations between the former allies Turkey and Syria quickly deteriorated, so did Turkey's relationship with Russia, which until recently was one of Assad's staunchest backers. Russia strongly opposed the Patriot missile deployment to Turkey -- Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Al Jazeera that Russia was "perfectly aware of its concern for its border," but that "any provocation can cause serious armed conflict."

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen countered that Turkey would only employ the Patriots for defensive purposes, nor would they support a no-fly zone over Syria, a measure that Turkey had previously advocated.

Russia has always dealt a heavy hand in the Middle East. This time, it was Russia's admission that Assad's regime was likely nearing its curtain call that set off a domino line of world leaders estimating that Assad now had only months, if not days, to live. Let that be a lesson for future Mideast dictators: If Russia seems about ready to push you out of the plane, get your golden parachute ready.

Meanwhile, late in November, as the sky was all but literally falling on Israel and Gaza, Egypt swept in to save the proverbial day. With a sprinkling of magic diplomatic dust from Hillary Clinton, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's new government successfully negotiated its first cease-fire. The Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi were touted and one of the "winners" of the Gaza war, even though in recent history, Egypt has always been the olive-branch bearer when it came to the tussles between Israel and the ruling parties in Gaza. This difference this time was that it was not former President Hosni Mubarak's nose under which this treaty emerged.

Mubarak, while not necessarily a friend to Israel, was at least, in his time, a dependable oversight committee for Israel's needs in maintaining border security between Egypt and Gaza and negotiating treaties that Israel deemed reasonable. But the devil Israel once knew now sits in an Egyptian jail, while the devil Israel had yet to see in action sits on Egypt's newly democratic throne. The one thousand shekel question was, on which side would Morsi come down?

The pressure inside Egypt was not to conform to Mubarak's prescribed route of appeasing Israel. The new Egypt wanted to see Morsi stand up to the Palestinians' "oppressors," to hand Hamas a decisive victory of some kind over the "occupying power," although it was unclear what that might look like, besides the total destruction of the state of Israel (which is, of course, a goal of Hamas, but that’s a separate issue).

On the Israeli side, the fear was that Morsi would abandon the 1979 peace treaty that Anwar Sadat  signed and Mubarak upheld, and suddenly Israel would be fighting not only Iran-backed Hamas in Gaza, but also Egypt.

In the end, somewhat cooler heads prevailed, but not before Hamas managed to spin the ceasefire into a victory by declaring it had stopped Israel from carrying out a planned ground invasion, thus creating a double-illusion that not only had David Hamas defeated the Goliath Israel, but now Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood could take partial credit for such a "victory."

In this way Morsi managed to please his constituency and looked strong for the Palestinians without actually causing any damage to his nearest nuclear-warhead-owning neighbor, or technically violating any peace treaties.

For now, the future of Israel-Egypt relations remain at best enigmatic, and at worst strained. Israel cannot be pleased with the new and strong voice that its foes in Egypt have suddenly found. With the passing of the constitutional referendum in the Muslim Brotherhood's favor, the near future is at least secure for Egypt's Islamists, a fact that will surely please the Islamist factions in the Palestinian territories and potentially improve relations between those governments.

Through it all, the newly democratic Egypt assumed the role of a regional peacekeeper and peace negotiator, a skill that may soon be put to task if and when a certain Syrian president finally disappears.

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