The showdown between Russia and Turkey has pitted Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the main contenders for Arab and Muslim hearts and minds – depending on which camp one supports in the many conflicts affecting the Arab world.
Each of the two leaders has been portrayed in social media, the press and in ordinary people’s chat as either a hero or a villain. Putin is described as the saviour of secularism against the rising threat of extremist self-styled “Islamists”; while Erdogan is painted as the saviour of an Islamic world against all kinds of threats and infiltrations.
Putin’s supporters see him as a daring challenger of US hegemony over the region, thus reviving hopes that a strong Russia can break the post-Cold War unipolar world. He is seen not as the heir of the Czars but of the former Soviet Union and its role as a counter-balance to US-led Western influence and control.
Erdogan supporters see him as a strong Muslim leader who puts Arab leaders to shame and does not bow to regional or mighty powers, and for many he is the only Sunni Muslim leader who can put an end to the Iranian Shia influence.
In other words, the rift between Russia and Turkey, even though it is unlikely to lead to a military confrontation, plays into the polarisation narrative in the Arab world.
The sad reality is that Syria, more than any other country in the region, has become the laboratory, the nesting ground and the ultimate victim of the conflicts that result from a vicious struggle over influence among Arab, regional and Western (including Russian) powers.
If anything, the perceived Putin-versus-Erdogan competition is largely determined by the division in positions over the Syrian crisis: If you support the Bashar al-Assad regime, you are likely to support Russia, its military intervention, and see the downing of the Russian plane as a Turkish attempt to foil Moscow’s endeavour to stop lifeline supplies to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
If you belong to the diversified camp who still believe in a legitimate revolution in Syria, or support one or more factions of the Syrian opposition, from the secular to the Islamist, then Russia’s intervention is more about asserting its power and interests than about supporting the welfare of Syria.
The voices of the many people who have no illusions about either Russia or Turkey are almost eclipsed by the frenzy of rhetoric that tries to crown either Putin or Erdogan.
But this has been characteristic of the debate over Syria from the beginning, and in a sense the “Arab Idol” contest is an extension of the discourse over Syria – an almost fanatical discourse that does not leave room for debate.
It is not a discourse that can easily be termed “political left” versus “political right”. As the intelligentsia from both political spectrums especially sense, the emergence of a fearsome force capable of seizing territories has loosely united pro-Western regimes with leftist and liberal opposition in the renewed “war on terror”.
In this diversified camp, the majority, including officials in Jordan and Egypt, as well as leftist political parties, are cheering for Putin – the man who might be able to put an end to ISIL as well as prevent the break-up of Syria.
But to many, it is Erdogan who has shown courage and bravery in condemning atrocities committed by the Assad regime against the Syrian people. Moreover, not only has Turkey become home to Syrian refugees and a transit point to Europe, its border towns have become a centre for the opposition, NGOs and exiled Syrian journalists.
Cheerleaders for both men, assessing their respective performances, appear to ignore several important facts about the records of both leaders. Human rights violations are rampant in both countries. Turkey’s membership in NATO, and both countries’ burgeoning trade and military relations with Israel are either omitted from discussion or used selectively by one side against the other.
The video of Erdogan lashing out at then Israeli President Shimon Peres for trying to justify Israeli crimes against Palestinians and storming out of the panel discussion at the Davos World Economic Forum in 2009 did capture Arab minds and hearts – making it a memory revived by his supporters’ camp and minimised by his detractors.
But Turkey’s continued ties with Israel as well Russia’s consolidation of relations with Israel, including the setting-up of a bilateral coordination committee to prevent clashes of the country’s respective fighters over Syrian skies, are again details that are either brushed aside or used as incriminating evidence by opponents.
Fear of either ISIL’s expansion or true anger at the Assad regime, or hopes for a strong Islamic world or for the re-emergence of Russia as a superpower make all facts irrelevant in the current discussion, which is like one between angry football fans arguing over whose team is better.
An underlying nostalgia for either the Ottoman Empire among Islamists or the Soviet Union among many leftists has also made the discussion murkier. We have witnessed an attempt by the first camp to write a revisionist history of the Ottoman rule of the Arab World, deleting episodes of suffering and oppression, while the second camp appears blind to the new reality of Russia’s foreign policy.
When the Russian raids on Syria began, words hailing the “Red Army” or “the storm of the Sokhoys”, complete with photos filled social media posts, while words singing the praises of the “great Islamic leader” Erdogan also circulated in cyberspace.
Ladies seem to favour the “fit and cool” Putin and share photos of him on social media, either singing, dancing or exercising. Their admiration is not simply for a “manly superstar” but rooted in their fear of Islamists ending their lifestyle.
In contrast, photos of Erdogan and his veiled wife are often posted, reflecting religious commitment and the wish to make Turkey a more conservative Islamic society.
This contest for an Arab Idol is also marked by the absence of competition among Arab leaders and the lack of a strong leadership that drives the majority to find solace in the ability of Putin or Erdogan to protect their present as well as their dreams for the future.