By Dr. Tian Wenlin
Turkish military operation, dubbed the “Operation Peace Spring”, launched in northern Syria has continued for the past few days. Turkey has claimed to completely eliminate the local Kurdish terror groups as well as Islamic State. In fact, the Turkish military has launched a military operation codenamed "Olive Branch" in northern Syria, and repeatedly crossed the border to strike targets in Iraqas early as January 2018. Turkish recent actions against its Arab neighbors just reflect its ambition to reshape the order in the Middle East and seek to become a regional power.
In recent years, with the “looking westward” policy getting frustrated, Turkey has turned to “looking eastward” and sought to restore the influence of the former Ottoman Empire. The Treaty of Lausanne, signed between Turkey and other powers to partition the former Ottoman Empire in 1923, will officially expire by 2023. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has tried to explain the legitimacy of Turkey’s inheritance of the former Ottoman Empire from the perspective of international law, intending to establish a new Ottoman Empire to an even larger extent, a diplomatic strategy called "New Ottomanism" by the outside. Under the guidance of the strategy, Turkey has been trying to expand its influence in the Middle East by all means. The latest operation of Turkish military launched in northern Syria just manifests its pursuit of dominance in the Middle East.
The reason why the Turkish troops could enter smoothly these Arab neighbors with no hindrance is that the geopolitical pattern of the Middle East has experienced a major change that has never occurred in the past 100 years: the overall decline of the Arab world, and the relative rise of non-Arab countries. In the Middle East, the Arab world has a vast territory and a large population, having always been the absolute protagonist on the political arena of the Middle East. Countries outside the region, including Turkey, Iran, and Israel, can only act as supporting actors. However, what is regrettable is that over the past years, the Arab world has not given full play to and integrated its established advantages to make the Arab world a pivotal geopolitical power in the Middle East and even the world. On the contrary, its overall influence has been on the declinedue to a series of strategic mistakes in terms of internal and external affairs.
From the perspective of internal affairs, the Arab world has not explored a development path in line with its own national conditions. In terms of development, many Arab countries have copied the economic policy of New Liberalism advocated by the West, which has led to the “deindustrialization”, the polarization between the rich and the poor, and the livelihood poverty of the people. Eventually, the “rulers could not move on as usual”. In terms of reform, the Middle East countries "have not got rid of all the drawbacks of the system" (such as a change from "serving the minority" to "serving the majority"), but "maintained the inappropriate" (such as a change from centralization to decentralization), resulting in a weak central government merely possessing hypothetical and formal power. The upheavals in the Middle East that began in 2011, were the outburst of the above-mentioned contradictions after long-term accumulation, and caused the Arab world to be severely impacted. So was the regional influence.
From the perspective of external affairs, the Arab world has not achieved unity so as to "speak in one voice". Instead, it has got stuck in internal disputes in the face of a series of major historical tests, leading to the escalation of political fragmentation.
The first major event is that Egypt unilaterally made peace with Israel in 1977, leading to the isolation of Egypt from the entire Arab world, and even the Arab League headquarters once moved from Cairo to Tunisia. The second major event is the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The fratricidal fighting led to the disintegration of the Arab world once again. Most countries opposed the annexation by force, and only a few countries, including Jordan and Palestine, stood on the side of Iraq. The third major event is the upheavals in the Middle East that began in 2011. The upheavals reflected the profound crisis of national governance in the Arab world, and led to the deep division of the Arab world: the traditional monarchical states headed by Saudi Arabia chose to stand with the West, and oppose Syria, Libya and etc. Subsequently, the hotspots of conflicts in the Arab world emerged dramatically, and the final hope to build an Arab Union got ruined. The fourth major event is the Yemen war launched by the Saudi-led coalition forces in 2015. The war plunged Yemen into the most serious humanitarian disaster, and made Saudi Arabia, the new "bellwether" of the Arab world, get trapped in the quagmire of war. The fifth event is that Saudi Arabia suddenly Saudi Arabia suddenly broke off with Qatar in 2017 Saudi Arabia suddenly cut off diplomatic ties with Qatar in 2017, leading to the open split of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) renowned for its solidarity. Following these major events, the geographical plate of infinite potential has been increasingly fragmented, with many countries (such as Iraq, Syria, Libya, etc.) becoming geopolitical pieces from former chess players in geography.
The power pattern in the Middle East undergoes "a great change never occurring for the past hundred years", making non-Arab countries including Turkey, Iran, and Israel, which has originally always played a supporting role in the region, eager to get involved into regional affairs, but treating the vast Arab world as the main battlefield of their geo-games. In the new context of "a strongerIsrael and a weaker Arab world", Israel’s regional policies have become even tougher. Iran has also been actively expanding its influence at the advantage of the current changesin the Middle East. So are the aggressive regional policies of Turkey.
It should be pointed out that these non-Arab countries are not major powers, but their political ambitions are generally greater compared with their own strength at present. In the long run, this has far-reaching implications for peace and development in the Middle East.
(The author is a researcher at the Institute of Middle East Studies of China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations)