One of the biggest hurdles in solidifying the unity of the Northern bloc of Middle East nations (which includes Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey) is the ongoing schism between two de-fato members of the bloc–Turkey and Syria.
In spite of Syria and Turkey’s mutual position on issues as wide ranging as good relations with Russia, Iraq and Iran, fervent support for Palestine, anti-Americanism and strained relations with Riyadh–Syria and Turkey are still at odds with each other.
This is not to say that the mutual positions of the Northern bloc have all been achieved for the same reasons among each constituent country–but all such blocs of nations have their own particular reasons for taking the stances they do and each have varying degrees of commitment to their stated positions.
In this sense, there is nothing unusual about Turkey’s position on Palestine as a former Israeli ‘partner’, now being largely in line with that of the Islamic Republic of Iran, for whom the existence of an occupier entity in the Middle East was always ideologically and practically unacceptable.
However, Turkey’s position on Syria has made it so that too countries united for all of the aforementioned reasons, with the added benefit of being generally united in a position against Kurdish terrorism and militarism, has not yet amounted to a full rapprochement. The reasons for this are obvious enough. For much of the Syrian conflict, Turkey represented one of the primary threats to Syria’s sovereignty, as Ankara enthusiastically led the charge for ‘regime change’ while cultivating a gang of Sunni supremacists in the process.
Over the last year however, primarily due to Turkey’s accepting of the reality that President Bashar al-ASsad’s government will remain stable and the more important (for Turkey) reality that Russia and Iran are now vital economic and security partners, Turkey quietly dropped its official support for the so-called Syrian opposition and today has come out in a very vocal manner, saying that the government in Damascus is no longer a threat. This is Turkey’s way of extended a much anticipated olive branch to Syria–something which incidentally is also supported by Turkey’s Kemalist opposition.
Beyond the Syria conflict though, there are other factors quietly pushing Damascus and Ankara towards a slow and steady normalisation of relations. Of all the Arab governments today, Syria’s has been the most historically consistent when it comes to steadfast support of Palestine. Syria has participated in just about every regional conflict against Israel, up to and including important phases of the Lebanese Civil War which was exacerbated by two illegal Israeli invasions, one in 1978 and a larger one in 1982, which saw the presence of occupying Israeli troops in Lebanon until 2006.
By contrast, during much of this period, Turkey remained agnostic when it came to Arab affairs, while at the same time, relations with Israel remained healthy. Turkey was after all, the first Muslim majority nation to establish diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv.
Today however, the broader dynamics of the region have changed. Egypt and Jordan have relations with Israel and have all but forgotten the Palestinian cause (until very recently). Likewise, while Saudi Arabia helped spearhead the 1973 oil embargo to punish countries that sided with Israel in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, today Saudi Arabian flags are burnt in Palestine, due to the perception that Saudi Arabia cares more about its undeclared business ties to Israel and a mutual hatred of Iran, than Riyadh cares about Palestine. All this being said, while the oil embargo was motivated by self-interest on the part of Riyadh, so too could a shift to the Petroyuan in the name of Palestine, be much the same.
Add to the equation, that non-Arab Iran is now one of the region’s most consistently pro-Palestine states and that Turkey under Erdogan has rapidly become a close second and one sees that the Northern bloc/Southern bloc divide over Palestine is all too obvious to anyone not viewing the region through the prism of long past decades.
This is not to say that Palestine is the cause of the formation of the Northern bloc, but it is one of the most important effects. The effectiveness of this reality will very likely soon be realised when the nations of the region finalise their response to the current crisis over Jerusalem/al-Quds, in which the entire world has united against Donald Trump’s unilateral decision.
As part of the Ankara-Damascus rapprochement, the issue of Palestine could easily become an area which helps the two countries, who remain deeply suspicious of one another, to see eye to eye. This could work in tandem with a mutual friendship with Iran and Russia that would also act as a convincing factor in convincing both countries to make amends.
While the Southern bloc of the Middle East (with the exception of Israel) has also condemned Trump’s declaration, it is widely believed, including among Palestinians, that the true friends of Palestine are in Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran–not in Egypt, Jordan or Saudi Arabia.
If the Northern bloc is to match its rhetoric with a concrete plan of diplomatic and security action over the Palestine issue, as they claim they seek to do, it would help if Syria and Turkey, two important members of the bloc restore ties.
In this sense, it also behoves the members of the Northern bloc to bring what remains of the Syria conflict to an end, as soon as possible. This includes using Turkish influence over extremist Sunni militants in Syria, to demonstrate that unity over Palestine is more important than internal Muslim sectarian divides.
If Turkey and Syria can reach an understanding based on these principles, the Northern bloc itself would be one step closer to peace and one step closer to a truly united front on Palestine.