Historically, tipping points aren't really that unusual. They come with regularity, several times a century, sometimes several times a decade. Just in the last few decades, we've seen the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the end of the cold war, the rise of the Internet and 9/11 and the resultant violent upheavals that are still playing out in Capitols from Islamabad to Madrid.
So it's not necessarily overwrought to observe that what we're seeing in the Middle East, Arabia and North Africa this spring and summer, reflected as it is in the global financial crisis and its attendant reshuffling of political power, is a defining moment in international relations. The long overhang of authoritarian dictatorships, propped up by opposing powers to act as proxies has continued almost as a reflex, without any underlying logic. And finally, millions of people had the ability to look at the world around them and wonder why they faced such a grim and hopeless future, and they had a method for organizing themselves and presenting a genuine threat to the sclerotic despots that have simply stayed too long at the dance.
The outcome of the various "Arab Spring" national movements is entirely dependent upon how invested those in the second and third levels of power in the survival of the existing power structure. When the military in Tunisia and Egypt were simply unwilling to slaughter their own people in great enough numbers to quash the rebellion, the "Presidents for Life" quickly found retirement an attractive option. In Libya, Gaddhafi had nothing to lose. A murderer, war criminal and sponsor of international terrorism for forty years, there is no place he might seek a comfortable exile. And to cling to power, he has lavished wealth upon those in his inner circle, leaving them to choose a democratic future fraught with the potential for a tremendous loss of wealth and status and a civil war in which they still hold many, if not most, of the cards.
Bahrain is different, a glaring manifestation of the festering sore of sectarian hatred and intolerance that will prevent real integration of Muslim nations from Persia up through Arabia for the foreseeable future. In Sunni ruled Muslim nations, the Shi'a are hated and feared, and there is very likely no amount of political or economic pressure that can cause them to live in peace with their co-religionist neighbors.
Which brings us to Syria. This is the big dog, the 800 pound gorilla of the Arab Spring. And Bashar al-Assad has a pedigree in these matters. In 1982 his father slaughtered tens of thousands of his own citizens in Hama to put down a Sunni rebellion. He KNOWS how to deal with a rabble. Except there are a number of things that have changed since 1982, and the risks of mass murder are very much higher than they were back then. There is the Internet, with it's citizen journalists. There is a world less willing to tolerate heads of state who cling to power by means of murder and intimidation. There are organizations, from al Jazeera to the UN to NonGovs who cannot be silenced by al-Assad's intimidation. But most of all, there is Turkey, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Erdoğan has shown himself to be smart, independent and courageous. He was not willing to allow Israel to intimidate him into silence or inaction, and he stood up and said what the world knew to be true and was too cowed by American power to say themselves - that the Blockade of Gaza was a criminal act, collective punishment of the worst kind, and must not be allowed to go unchallenged. Turkey had a long, productive military and commercial relationship with Israel, but Erdoğan's government didn't feel that they needed that relationship as much as they needed to speak truth and honor their values. Once upon a time there were some Americans, in times of earlier challenge, who would clearly understand this position.
Turkey, under Erdoğan has been willing to use its regional political, economic and military power to make a difference, following their own agenda rather than that of the US, Russia, China or even NATO. But at the same time, as a NATO member, Turkey has a certain freedom of movement denied to others in the region, because there is, within the treaty, an obligation to mutual defense that leaves Turkey invulnerable to many coercive threats.
Now, by an accident of geography, the Syrian bloodletting is happening on the Turkish border. Syrian Army tanks, gunships and artillery are even now leveling cities and murdering hundreds, if not thousands of their own citizens. Members of the Mukhabarat are going from door to door with lists, summarily executing those whose names are known, or others who they mistake for a name on a list. Thousands of refugees have scrambled across the border, where the well organized Turkish Red Crescent has set up camps and made sure they had food, water and medical treatment. But thousands of other Syrians, guilty of nothing more than living in a blighted place, and perhaps being unhappy with a distant and unresponsive government, are trapped on the other side of the frontier, wondering if they will see a refugee camp or a Syrian machine gun first.
Now, here's where it gets interesting. The Turkish Prime Minister has made a number of statements around the possibility of moving Turkish troops across the border to set up a buffer zone to protect Syrian citizens from the Syrian army. This would be, obviously, a tremendously courageous move, fraught though it would certainly be with risk. Any move across the border, however temporary and humanitarian in nature, would constitute an invasion and would certainly invite a Syrian military reaction. But, on the other hand, President al-Assad has quite a bit on his plate, and he may be willing to suffer a small loss of face to avoid a border conflict with the immensely more powerful Turkish military.
But either way, what we're seeing is something important. The rise of a regional political, economic and military power headed by a genuine statesman. The world has suffered, not from the rise of technocratic governance, and not even so much from the rise of ideologically driven governments, but from finger-in-the-wind governance. We've watched one nation after another, sadly led by the United States, set aside any cast-in-stone values in preference for pragmatism, safety and political calculation. There just doesn't seem to be any brave, unflinching statesmen operating on the world stage today. Except, maybe, for one. Except for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the only adult in the room...