A tense autumn to come in the Middle East

The international community must do everything possible to prevent further escalation across the region.

Across the Middle East, the Arab Uprisings of the last two years have given way to an atmosphere of continuous uncertainty and growing tension, in some areas marked by incidents of violence, sometimes prolonged, sometimes sporadic. The outlook in the months ahead is dark.

Darkest of all is the prolonged conflict in Syria. There are real fears that the intensifying battles there may spill over into other countries in the region. Turkey watches, deeply concerned. Together with Jordan, it is struggling with a huge influx of refugees from Syria. Protracted violence in Syria can only destabilise the region further and, the longer the factions war in Syria, the less likely it is that a single, unified and strong Government will succeed the morally bankrupt Assad regime.

Lakhdar Brahimi has impressed in his first days as UN envoy. But, as Kofi Annan discovered, the task in formulating a coherent international response to a growing crisis is immense. This is especially true within the UN Security Council. But we cannot allow the present position to continue: if we do so, the situation will worsen, not stay the same.

The particular danger is that conflict will spread beyond Syria's borders. Increased activity by Iran in emphasising its support for Assad has added to tension and violent incidents, such as that which happened in Turkey earlier this week, act as dangerous individual sparks in a flammable environment.

In Egypt, a similar, tense atmosphere prevails. President Morsi's dismissal  of individual members of the military establishment form part of a longer stand off between emerging democratic forces and a residually strong, but perhaps weakening, Army. The tide of Egyptian affairs appears to moving towards more openness but broad suspicion remains about the new Government's views on women's rights in the context of a new constitution. Concerns have been intensified by the recent violence in Sinai between the Egyptian forces and extremist elements, events which precipitated Morsi's personnel changes.

Israel had expressed concerns previously about extremist elements in Sinai, warning of increased instability there. It has added to Israel's increased anxiety at developments following the Arab Uprisings. Far from making Israel more amenable to dealing with Arab regimes with a more democratic mandate, events have caused Israel to be more concerned at trends in the region posing increased threats to its security. The perception is not helped by contacts between Hamas and the new Egyptian Government and also by intemperate language about Israel which, if stability is to prevail, must be recognised and accepted as a permanent, legitimate state in the region.

The next months, in the lead up to the US Presidential Election, are crucial. There has been strong concern expressed by Israel over many months over the lack of progress in securing Iran's compliance with its non-proliferation obligations. Rhetoric is intensifying once more and speculation of a pre-emptive military strike against Iran is increasing, not diminishing. It is a time for rational assessments and cool analysis. The impact of an attack at the heart of this, most sensitive and unpredictable of regions, is impossible to predict. The international community must take all steps it can to ensure that it does not take place.

Ian Lucas is the Labour MP for Wrexham

Protestors in Yemen in 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Ian Lucas is the Labour MP for Wrexham.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue