Shamgen! Does it sound familiar? Obviously not. This is the codeword used in Ankara and Tehran for “a new political architecture for the Middle East” as imagined by Turkish and Iranian geo-strategists.
That the region will need a new political architecture is beyond doubt. No one knows what the recent and current uprisings in half a dozen countries from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean might produce. However, all agree that we ought to be looking for something more than a paint job.
Enter Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the man with a plan to impose order upon chaos.
Erdogan believes that the United States, the traditional power and influence in the region since the 1950s, has been taken by surprise by the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ and is unable to claim leadership in shaping the new Middle East.
He also believes that the Israel-Palestine issue, long regarded as the be-all and end-all of Middle Eastern politics, has been kicked into the tall grass for quite some time.
Erdogan’s third assumption is that the Arab League, despite its equivocal manoeuvres over Libya, is in no position to have an impact on the events, let alone decide their direction.
All this means that it is no longer possible for the countries of the region to build their foreign policies around an alliance with the United States or a real or feigned hatred of Israel.
The ‘Arab Spring’ has made things a bit more complicated.
It is in this context that Shamgen has been put on the table.
Shamgen is a play on the name of the town of Schengen, Luxembourg, where 25 European Union members signed an agreement to abolish visas for their citizens.
But the new Turkish word Shamgen also refers to Shaam, the name of a former province of the Ottoman Empire that included present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Erdogan’s new Shaam, however, has been enlarged to include Iraq, which is made-up of three former Ottoman provinces.
Lest anyone see the scheme as a neo-Ottoman move to separate some key Arab states of the east from Arab states in North Africa, Erdogan’s scheme also includes Libya, Tunisia and Morocco.
And that is not all.
The Shamgen proposed by Erdogan also includes Iran, the principal adversary of the Ottoman Empire throughout its existence. It is obvious that the Turks cannot seek leadership in the Middle East by excluding Iran. That was what the Ottomans tried to do and ended up in them having to fight on two fronts: against the Crusaders in the west and against the Iranians in the east.
In its first phase, Erdogan’s scheme envisages a zone of free movement starting with the abolition of visas among the countries concerned.
The next phase would herald the free movement of goods and capital in a stage by stage progress towards a Middle Eastern ‘common market.’
Is this nothing but a neo-Ottoman pipedream designed to brush aside the fact that Turkey is further than ever from its old goal of becoming a member of the European Union?
Soon, Erdogan will have to fight a general election against a backdrop of economic slowdown, social disaffection and deepening rifts in his Islamist camp. Shamgen could provide the ‘big idea’ that catches the headlines and diverts attention from the government’s poor performance over the past four years.
However, Erdogan’s move must not be dismissed as a cynical gambit.
He sees a vacuum developing in the Middle East and knows that someone and something will have to fill it.
Under President Barack Obama, the US appears to be unable to do that. This need not be because Obama is clueless in the face of an historic challenge that he does not understand. It is possible that, for ideological reasons, Obama was never comfortable with Pax-Americana and welcomes its apparent demise.
Shut out of Europe, Turkey now fears being shut out of the Middle East as well by the Islamic Republic in Iran under the ambitious leadership of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Seen from Ankara, three countries are in imminent danger of falling under Iranian domination.
The first is Iraq where Obama, still determined to prove that George W Bush was wrong in toppling Saddam Hussein, insists on ending all effective American presence before the next US presidential election.
With the US scripted out by Obama, Iraq’s Shi’ites and Kurds would look to Iran as their only ally in protecting the gains they have made since liberation.
The second country is Syria where Iranian influence has been growing at top speed. The last supporters of a Western option within the narrow circle of power in Damascus have been eased out or silenced. Today, the role of Syria’s big and powerful protector, assumed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, is played by Iran.
The third country is Lebanon where Iran uses the local branch of Hezbollah in a ruthless power game.
There is a fourth mini-pawn in this chess game: Gaza where Hamas, now mainly financed by Iran, is becoming part of Tehran’s quest for regional influence.
Turkey does not want Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza to fall under exclusive Iranian domination. Such a development would isolate Turkey and render its position even weaker when it comes to dealing with the European Union.
A Turkey that is half encircled by a Khomeinist empire would also find itself threatened on ideological grounds. Erdogan may well be a crypto-Islamist as his critics claim. But his Islamism is different from that of Ahmadinejad with its “Hidden Imam” motif.
Shamgen is a very Ottoman move, designed to serve several, at times contradictory, purposes.
Under it, Turkey, as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, would prevent a complete rupture with the West, led by the US.
It will keep Iran linked to a regional scheme, thus preventing it from attempting mischief on its own.
It will prevent a situation in which Iraq, Syria and Lebanon will find themselves alone with Iran’s growing ambitions. With Turkey present as part of a regional set up, they would feel in a better position to say “no” to Iran when they need to do so.
The scheme will also lock Turkey into the endless Israel-Palestine issue, preventing it from becoming a uniquely Iranian issue thanks to Tehran’s control of Hamas.
The inclusion of Arab states in North Africa is a ploy to dilute the political content of the scheme, thus reassuring the US and the EU. Of special interest is the inclusion of Libya where neither Colonel Muammar Kaddhafi nor his opponents have any love for the Khomeinist regime.
A very Ottoman gambit, Shamgen may be nothing but a pipedream. What it does, nonetheless, is to remind us that a vacuum is taking shape in the heart of the Middle East. Erdogan may not be able to fill it. But someone will.