Is the Middle East on the mend?

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”…

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