Analysis. Regional leaders reacted to the outcome of Sunday’s vote along lines of the new power structures forming around Turkey’s growing political, military and religious importance.

‘Super-president’ Erdogan seeks greater Middle East role

If relations between Turkey and Western Europe are one of the key consequences of the outcome of Sunday’s constitutional referendum, the (narrow) victory of Sunni Islamist Erdogan is bound also to have repercussions on the Middle Eastern scene. The Arab and Islamic reactions to the vote give a clear picture of the weight the Turkish “super-president” has in the region, positive for some but negative for others.

Among the first to congratulate him was the Emir of Qatar, Tamim Bin Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani. On Sunday evening, he immediately called his rock solid ally Erdogan to express his satisfaction and his desire to make “relations even closer” between Doha and Ankara. The two countries have a common strategy in Syria aimed at forcing the removal of President Bashar al-Assad. And it is expected that once Erdogan enjoys even more freedom of action, he will again take a tough line against Damascus and its ally Iran. A first test was this week when the delegations from Russia, Turkey and Iran met in Tehran to prepare for the new round of talks on the future of Syria that are expected to begin in Astana in early May.

At the end of 2016, Erdogan seemed to have taken note of the Syrian reality. He even gave up his demand for a rapid removal of Assad. But after the American bombing of the Syrian air base ordered by Trump, the drums of war rolled again. “And they are very likely to continue to do so in the coming months, because, thanks to the outcome of the referendum, Erdogan now believes he is stronger, even in foreign policy,” Ali Hashem, an analyst of the web portal Monitor, told il manifesto.

The relations between Turkey and Shiite Iran, a supporter of Assad, therefore, will be back in the spotlight. “Erdogan dreams of bringing his country to the glories and the regional domain it had for centuries with the Caliphate. In recent years he has already played a containment line to the Iranian ambitions that could become a confrontation,” added Hashem. At the same time, the analyst underlines the risks associated with a greater initiative of the Turkish president. “Erdogan isn’t hiding the fact he wants to become the political leader of Sunni Islam in the region. But this is the role typically attributed to the Saudi ruling family, and, therefore, it remains one of the hot topics in relations between Ankara and Riyadh, who nevertheless are allies against Assad and Iran.”

The Turkish leader, however, by presenting himself with too much momentum as the main reference of the Sunnis in the Middle East, would ultimately strengthen relations, which currently are cold, between the Saudi King Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, head of the two most important Arab countries. Cairo, unlike other Sunni capitals, did not applaud Erdogan’s victory. The Egyptians accuse Erdogan of being one of the main sponsors of the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization labeled “terrorist” in Egypt after the military coup of 2013. On Monday, media close to the Sisi regime commented on the Turkish referendum result. Instead of emphasizing Erdogan’s strength, they highlighted his “weakness,” since he will govern a country split in two, between supporters and opponents of his leadership.

Leaders of Hamas, the movement that’s held sway in Gaza for 10 years, celebrated — but not too loudly. They have been under Ankara’s wing for years, and still hope that the full resumption of relations between Israel and Turkey will push down Tel Aviv’s pressure on the Gaza Strip. That hope proved in vain until now.

Erdogan has no intention of endangering his newfound harmony with Israel in the management of regional power relations by terminating the blockade of Gaza — even though he had promised to do so in 2010, after Israeli special forces assaulted the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara en route to Gaza with the Freedom Flotilla. This is demonstrated by Ankara’s silence about “Israel’s crimes against Palestinians,” as Erdogan described them a few years ago. In the background is Palestinian Authority President Abu Mazen, whom Erdogan expects will put pressure on Hamas to resize its ambitions.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Your weekly briefing of progressive news.

You have Successfully Subscribed!