Turkey Urges Mideast to Learn to Live with Pax Americana

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Not even a million dollars will get you a room at Riyadh's brassy Conference Palace Hotel. Its atrium lobby has one of the world's largest crystal chandeliers, and its plush suites are reserved exclusively for guests of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

But last Friday, the hotel was swarming with some decidedly scruffy figures, as hordes of reporters, photographers and TV cameramen turned up for an emergency council of states bordering Iraq. Saudi Arabia had invited the foreign ministers of Syria, Turkey, Iran, Kuwait and also Egypt and Bahrain for a meeting to "crystallize a common stand", as its top diplomat Prince Saud al-Faisal put it, on the momentous events in their neighborhood.

And it didn't take a soothsayer to figure out that all would not be hunky-dory among a group of Middle East states that don't typically find it easy to agree.

A couple of hours after the round table conclave began, Turkey's foreign minister Abdullah Gul and his Iranian counterpart, Kamal Kharazi, stepped out into the lobby, and stayed there for quite a while until they were summoned back into the conference hall. Neither, of course, said anything to suggest there was dissension behind the closed doors. But reporters couldn't help but notice that the two ministers cooling their heels in the lobby represented the only non-Arab nations at the meeting.

"I don't think we have any differences," a senior Turkish diplomat assured Time, even as he agitatedly looked for an agency reporter who had already put out a story that the scrap could be about Iraq's oil.

Not so, said the diplomat. "Our only demand is that Iraq's natural resources should be utilized equally by all the Iraqi people" — a coded demand that the Kurds should not be given control of the northern oilfields.

But a nasty rumor was circulating in the lobby held that Turkey was demanding the honoring of a 1920s treaty with Britain, which guaranteed it a share of Iraq's northern oilfields. This elicited a look of plain horror from the Turkish official.

Difficult to believe, perhaps, in a region whose very survival is dependent on oil, but it was suddenly considered in bad taste to even mention the stuff. Nobody wanted to be accused of being a coffin chaser.

Instead, the preferred word, used also in the nine-point joint declaration issued at the end of the seven-hour meeting, was 'natural resources,' suitably neutral and incapable of evoking oil's tumultuous geopolitics of greed and guns.

But even if, as some leaders insisted, oil was not discussed at the meeting, the fate of Iraq's vast energy reserves is understandably a matter of primary concern in the region that is home to some of the world's largest oil and gas producers.

Of course, the repeated calls by moderate Arab leaders close to the U.S. for "occupation forces" to vacate Iraq "as soon as possible" reflect deep anxiety that the continued presence of American troops in a major Arab nation associated with Islam's glorious past will fuel Islamic radicalism.

But the 'Yankee, go home!' call is clearly also linked to the nervousness among major oil-producers such as the Saudis over the long-term consequences of a U.S. lock on Iraqi oil. And the frequent insistence that the United Nations, rather than the U.S., should have the central role in the reconstruction of the war-ravaged nation may also be a coded way of saying, "Let's prevent the Americans from taking control of the oilfields".

Iran has even gone a step further: Its national radio suggested on Friday that Iraq's neighbors could use their "economic resources, including oil" as a "lever to compel America to put on the brakes in many spheres."

In response, the message from Turkey's Gul seemed to be, "Get real!" Nothing was said publicly, but Ankara apparently wants Iraq's other neighbors to understand that the world has changed, that the U.S. troops will be in Baghdad for some time to come, and that Washington will not allow the UN or anybody else to have a say in the oil-rich Arab nation's future. In other words, the nervous neighbors might as well learn to live with the new tenant next door. Thus, also, the advice to Damascus to give up its belligerent posture, and recognize that it is in Syria's interest now to stop aiding and abetting Palestinian groups.

(After all the protest against the bullying of young President Bashar al-Assad, the joint declaration contained only a muted reference to the controversy. It expressed "disagreement with allegations directed toward Syria, and welcomed the news regarding the intention of the American Secretary of State to visit Damascus to discuss Syrian-American relations.")

Turkey may not have been solely responsible for the subdued statement on Syria. Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the two Arab majors at the meeting, are also said to have advised Damascus to cool it.

But Gul would have helped ensure that the Riyadh conclave does not set even a general deadline for coalition forces to vacate Iraq . The joint declaration only reminds the "occupying powers" of "their obligation to withdraw from Iraq", and omits "as soon as possible", something which the other neighbors otherwise repeatedly emphasize (as did Prince Saud after the meeting concluded). The joint appeal then, is unexceptionable, since Washington has already said it will eventually pull its troops out of Iraq.

"Turkey wants to balance its position with the U.S., it wants to play the moderator in the region," said a journalist in the Turkish foreign minister's entourage, suggesting that Ankara is now busy trying to undo the damage caused by its refusal to allow American troops to use its territory for the invasion of Iraq.

How far it can succeed in its self-appointed role as a kind of regional point man for Washington will probably be determined by many factors beyond Turkey's control, not least what happens next on the uncertain road to peace between Israel and Palestine.