Erdogan, the Strongest Leader in the Mideast

The thousands of refugees who fled Syria in the past week are providing Erdogan with an opportunity to determine the fate of Syria.

ISTANBUL - Although the party of Recep Tayyip Erdogan was unable to win enough seats in parliament to change Turkey's constitution without taking into account the opinion of the opposition, Erdogan is still the happiest leader in the Muslim world. After this week's elections, he is the sole leader in the area who knows, with near certainty, that he will be in power for another four years.

The political earthquake in Arab countries has yielded additional unexpected benefits for the Turkish prime minister. In the short term, the thousands of refugees who fled Syria in the past week created a logistic and humanitarian headache for Ankara, and may even be increasing fears of renewed tension with the Kurds. However, they are providing Erdogan with an opportunity to determine the fate of Syria.

The regime in Damascus, in the first three months of the revolution being fought against it, contained events within the country's borders. It cut off Western media and expelled their correspondents, greatly undermining the ability of the few opposition groups - inside Syria and in exile - to close ranks against the government and to begin to offer an alternative to the Assad dynasty.

Ostensibly, Erdogan is cooperating with his friend in Damascus by shutting the refugees into camps along the border and preventing them from having contact with journalists, who are hungry for firsthand testimony about the bloodbath in Syria's rebellious towns.

But Erdogan's sharp condemnation of the murderous oppression signals that even the Turkish prime minister understands that Assad's time is limited.

Three weeks ago, Erdogan allowed Syrian opposition activists to hold a highly publicized meeting in Turkey. Now, he has become the patron of a temporary base for a new regime to take power with the fall of Assad.

The coming months will see the government in Damascus grow weaker, with more soldiers refusing to fire on civilians and ethnic groups increasingly joining the revolution. The refugee camps on Turkish soil will serve as a breeding ground for the new Syrian opposition; only factions friendly to Ankara will be permitted to grow. If that happens as expected, the new Syria will be a vassal state of Turkey.

How will Erdogan behave then? Will he exploit his influence to sever the radical axis that connects Hezbollah in Lebanon with its Iranian patron, via Syria? Who will be the partners in the new axis that he will probably aspire to establish? What advice will he give to the new Syrian leaders when they come to negotiate with Israel?

If the Turkish prime minister really is our sworn enemy, Israel can expect a problematic period in terms of politics and security. But there is also a positive opportunity. Despite the friendly meetings between Erdogan and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, there is an ancient rivalry between the two countries. An increase in Turkish influence will of necessity come at the expense of Iran.

Israel can take out one insurance policy to protect itself from the effects of the Arab revolution - a sharp and swift improvement in relations with Ankara. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon's demonstration of diplomatic pride in humiliating the Turkish ambassador now looks childish and foolish. The prolonged estrangement since Operation Cast Lead, which worsened with what happened on the Mavi Mamara and that flotilla to Gaza, is now hurting Israel far more than Turkey.

Israel still has diplomatic, economic and cultural ties with Turkey, and as for the ties between the Israel Defense Forces and the Turkish army, that's a stronger alliance than the political climate. Instead of watching these assets gradually erode, Israel would do well to act with determination to improve relations with the strongest leader in the region.