Is the Middle East on the mend?

Even the most hard-nosed adversaries seem to be making overtures for peace

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, backdropped by a painting depicting modern Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, chairs his government's cabinet in Ankara, Turkey, Monday, April 26, 2021. Erdogan said he was "highly saddened" by U.S. President Joe Biden's decision to mark as genocide the mass deportations and massacres of Armenians in the early 20th century Ottoman Empire, calling it baseless and unjust. (Turkish Presidency via AP)
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It is unlikely to last, but it is hard to remember the last time the Middle East has been as calm, relatively speaking, as it is today.

Consider where we were just over a year ago. Some 3 million displaced Syrians huddled together in Idlib province, the last rebel-held territory, as the world feared the humanitarian catastrophe likely to result from a Russia-backed offensive by President Bashar Al Assad.

In Libya, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s massive military campaign neared Tripoli, where his Libyan National Army readied for the battle of the century against the Government of National Accord. In Yemen, efforts to reach a political settlement had again failed and violence escalated sharply in early 2020, with fighting on several fronts.

Today it’s a changed landscape. Libya is tenuously peaceful and headed towards December elections, thanks in part to Turkey’s intervention, which is widely seen as helping bring about what appears to be a legitimate political resolution.

Yes, Ankara’s invasions of north-eastern Syria have led to charges of ethnic cleansing and war crimes. But Turkey’s military incursion into Idlib and the March 2020 ceasefire with Russia helped stave off a massacre and kept another refugee wave from washing over Europe. Now some Arab states have moved to welcome Mr Al Assad’s Syria back into the regional fold while Turkey has launched a campaign with Russia and Qatar to encourage a political resolution.

And now Iraq is working to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran to create a dynamic that encourages de-escalation throughout the region. “We want good and special relations with Iran,” Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said last week. Days later, officials confirmed that the two countries have been involved in talks to reduce tensions and end the war in Yemen.

As pandemic fears start to recede, across the region, supposed adversaries are making nice: the Montagues and Capulets as BFFs. In 2018 Mohammad Ali Jafari, head of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, vowed that Tehran would never talk with the “Great Satan”, the US. Yet bilateral negotiations to restart the nuclear deal have intensified in recent days.

Turkey, meanwhile, seems to be talking to everyone. Egypt-Turkey ties have been icy since President Abdel Fattah El Sisi ousted Mohammed Morsi in mid-2013, but Egyptian and Turkish officials met for talks last week in Cairo, a significant step towards normalisation.

Turkey and Israel have reportedly been making progress in back-channel talks, and Ankara invited the Israeli energy minister to next month’s diplomacy conference in Antalya, which would be the first high-level Israeli visit since 2018.

Finally, this Tuesday Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu will make the first Turkish diplomatic visit to Saudi Arabia in four years. The two hope to end the rift sparked in part by the 2018 killing of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.

What's behind Turkey's charm offensive? Closer ties with Arab powers may help Ankara avoid further sanctions from the US and EU. Also, right now Turkey is in deep economic trouble and needs as many trade partners as it can gather. And with poll numbers at an all-time low, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could use a domestic political win.

Outside Turkey, he's faring much better. In a survey last month by Princeton University's Arab Barometer, the Turkish president outpolled many other regional leaders. A decade ago, after popular uprisings toppled leaders in Cairo and Tunis, Mr Erdogan visited Arab capitals and was, in the words of one leading western magazine, greeted "like a rock star".

Islamist outfits such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which had inspired Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), seemed ascendant, and the Turkish leader appeared to represent the region’s future. Yet within a handful of years Islamists had mostly come to be seen as troublemakers and Mr Erdogan had pushed Turkey to the brink of authoritarianism.

Now, even after a decade of problematic Turkish policies on top of centuries of Ottoman rule, Turkey’s leader has come full circle. Arab Barometer pointed to Mr Erdogan’s unmatched electoral legitimacy – in its 20-year history, the AKP has never lost a national vote – and Turkey’s increasing openness to Arab activists, dissidents and tourists.

In North Africa, Turkey has been making headway for some time. Last month, Mr Erdogan and Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah vowed to increase oil and gas co-operation. Libya hosts Africa’s largest oil reserves, and thanks to its intervention and its maritime deal with the GNA, Turkey is likely to be involved in developing its energy blocs.

In December Turkey signed a deal with Tunisia offering $150 million in interest-free loans to Tunis to buy Turkish military equipment. Ankara and Algiers signed seven co-operation agreements a few years ago, and Algeria is now Turkey’s second-largest trade partner in Africa, at $4.2 billion in 2020. “The Maghreb countries are becoming part of Turkey’s zone of influence,” Dalia Ghanem of Carnegie’s Middle East Centre in Beirut wrote last week. “The Turkish footprint will continue to grow.”

Gaining ground with Israel, Egypt and the Gulf powers won’t be so easy. Turkey dug itself a hole on a range of issues – the Libyan war, the chase for eastern Mediterranean natural gas, influence in Sudan and Somalia, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, the main fighting force in the US-led anti-ISIS coalition.

But Turkey needs reconciliation more than the other side. Hat in hand, Mr Erdogan is unlikely to get what he wants without giving up a great deal. His Islamist foreign policy may go first, as Egypt wants Ankara to further distance itself from the Muslim Brotherhood and give up the group’s leaders exiled in Turkey.

Next may be Turkey’s military presence in Libya, where neighbouring Egypt has long feared the spillover of violence. On Friday, Mr Erdogan said Turkey was committed to regaining its historical bond with Egypt and that talks would continue and expand.

As with Egypt, a nagging issue for Israel is the Hamas presence in Turkey. The Muslim Brotherhood-linked group, labelled a terrorist outfit by the US and EU, has administrative offices in Istanbul as well as a cyber-warfare and counter-intelligence centre. Those will probably need to be shut down if the reset is to move forward.

What might Saudi Arabia request from Turkey? We’ll know soon enough.

Ankara may not have significantly altered its policies in recent months, but it has clearly changed tack. As recently as October, its state-run outlet TRT World was running articles examining how Arab states had aligned against Turkey. These days, the outlet brings in analysts from the pro-government Seta think tank to highlight “a historic change in Turkish-Arab relations” and detail how “both sides have learnt to trust each other”.

Not yet. But all of the sudden, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

David Lepeska is a Turkish and Eastern Mediterranean affairs columnist for The National