A Recap of the Political Events in the Middle East in 2013. New Trends

26 december 2013

Vitaly Naumkin, Ph.D. in History, is a Professor and Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences. He is also head of the Department of Regional Problems at Moscow State University, President of the Center for Strategic and Political Research, and Editor-in-Chief of the Vostok-ORIENS magazine published by the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Resume: The developments in the Middle East in 2013 had a number of common features, which I believe will continue into the new year.

The developments in the Middle East in 2013 had a number of common features, which I believe will continue into the new year.

Instability, unpredictability, governance disruptions and the crisis of nation states throughout almost the entire region is the first such feature.

The issue concerns not just the crisis of the widely discussed Sykes-Picot colonial system. Following World War I, this system marked the borders of most states in this region, but it has clearly started showing signs of strain today. Societies, which are developing as nations with their own sovereignty and identity, have taken shape within these borders. The problem of governance disruptions and an identity crisis is typical of other regions as well, but it is most noticeable in the Middle East.

It is no coincidence that occasionally the question arises about changing borders, destroying existing states and creating new unions. Some analysts believe that the case of Sudan splitting into two states is unlikely to remain an isolated instance of such a division. However, I do not want to sound like a doomsayer. The Middle East and its peoples need order and stability. I hate it when they start questioning the existing system of states there, but today the region is facing a crisis, instability and poor governance. New states inefficiently run the territory that they are responsible for and within which they have national sovereignty. The Middle East is challenging the existing world order and states in other regions.

This challenge is handled differently by different states. It is known that there are forces that are trying to use it to their advantage, but I will not name the countries that benefit from this aggravated instability. At the same time, I do not want to join the ranks of those who support foreign conspiracy theories. All regional states, including non-Arab states, such as Iran, Turkey and Israel, face similar internal threats and challenges, including the major aggravation of interstate, interethnic, and inter- and intra-faith contradictions.

The uncontrollable situation created in the interests of particular players is unlikely to be rolled back easily to the previous formation, even now when the interests have changed. Take Syria, for instance. The United States and Britain, which have long supported the Syrian opposition and the armed rebellion in particular, announced a few days ago that the supply of arms to the rebels would be frozen because the units of the Islamic Front have seized warehouses belonging to the Syrian People's Army. The rivalry between the various units of the Syrian opposition has become acute (skirmishes and fatalities persist) to the point where several high-ranking American experts, including a former director of the CIA, are now making statements to the effect that of all the potential solutions to the Syrian problem, the preservation of the Bashar al-Assad regime is the most acceptable for the United States. Such a statement coming from overseas even a couple of months ago would have been unthinkable.

The second new feature that clearly showed itself in Egypt was the decline of the influence of political Islam. The third Egyptian revolution (although this term is fairly conventional, we’ll assume that the first “street” revolution was against the regime of Hosni Mubarak; the second was the revolution made by the Muslim Brotherhood; and the third was made by the revolutionary and secular forces represented by the Tamarod movement) has radically changed the situation in the Middle East. These changes did not benefit political Islam, the rise of which was the dominant trend until recently. This new situation has changed the balance of forces in the Middle East, caused major concerns for external actors who relied on political Islam, impacted the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Palestinian movement, and the situation in Syria and surrounding the Syrian crisis and Iran.

The third feature was Russian diplomacy’s growing role on the international arena. I refer to this as the Russian doublet, meaning two important shots, if you can refer in this way to two achievements by creative and energetic Russian diplomacy. Notably, the Russian leadership prefers to use a pragmatic approach that focuses not on its role, but rather on cooperation with other partners, particularly the United States, where Obama went to great lengths to achieve diplomatic solutions.

The first shot of the doublet concerns the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria. Russia’s initiative enjoyed broad-based international support, and its importance goes far beyond its current relevance. This does not just concern the elimination of weapons in a single country. I believe that it’s the first step on the path to the implementation of Russian initiatives, such as creating a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. It is not a coincidence that during the annual meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club, President Vladimir Putin for the first time definitely formulated the idea that Israel has no practical need for nuclear weapons and should disarm. This is the first time that such a statement has been made in no uncertain terms.

This initiative is important for the situation in Syria as well. It headed off the threat of a military strike against Damascus, where the U.S. President almost got involved against the will of his people (about 70% of the United States’ population opposed the military intervention in Syria). America is fed up with two wars. The Afghan-Iraqi syndrome can be felt not only in the United States but also in Europe. The situation will unfold under the influence of this syndrome.

The second shot in this doublet is the agreement between the P5 +1 Group and Tehran on Iran's nuclear program. Despite the fact that it is a preliminary and an intermediate agreement, it’s still a big breakthrough. Many players may find that they have played a crucial role in achieving this, for example, the United States, whose representative, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, held secret talks with Iran, and Iran itself, whose leadership has demonstrated flexibility and willingness to address the issues through negotiations. However, let's not forget that Russia has been urging to look for compromises on the path toward mutual concessions, where appropriate compromise steps by Iran would be met by the gradual lifting of sanctions by the international community and, above all, the unilateral sanctions that the West has imposed on Tehran.

The paradigm of this agreement can be found in former Russian initiatives, so in this case we have good reason to be proud of the achievements of our diplomacy, which is a major resource that Russia relies on as it promotes its interests on the international arena.

The fourth feature can be described as ongoing shifts in the configuration of the internal political fray in the region. As soon as the Muslim Brotherhood failed in Egypt, Saudi Arabia suddenly (which was expected by many analysts, though, but was totally unexpected for most lay people) supported the military, while Turkey was strongly against them. Turkey found itself in the same camp with Iran, which also condemned this move, but for other reasons. In Syria, Turkey and Iran stand on the opposite sides of the front, but here they act together.

Strained relations between Saudi Arabia and its partners in the Gulf, on the one hand, and Iran, on the other hand, allowed several observers to argue that the actual war between Iran and Saudi Arabia is a spinoff of the Syrian conflict. Western countries and their regional allies exert a lot of pressure on Russia and our partners as they want us to go along with their demands regarding the withdrawal of the Iranian advisers, Hezbollah and Shiite volunteers from Iraq and Syria. In turn, we put forward a logical counterargument, speaking about the need to withdraw thousands of international jihadists from Syria. Up until now, every day, tens and sometimes hundreds of jihadists cross the Turkish-Syrian border despite the fact that Turkey has slowly began to reconsider its position and is trying to cut off the jihadists. This creates major tensions in the Middle East. Even in this difficult situation, Russia is actively preparing for the Geneva Conference. No one knows yet how many participants it will attract if it takes place in Montreux, Switzerland on January 22 as planned. Nevertheless, Russia's role here is fairly large.

The growth of jihadism and the transfer of the gravity in political Islam toward the most extremist elements, where their numbers are growing and they are becoming increasingly active, is now regarded as a threat to Russia. Of course, the fact that the rebels fighting for Jabhat Al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant include citizens of different CIS countries, including Russia (some say their number exceeds 500), is a major concern for our country. We are stunned occasionally to learn that ethnic Russians join the militants and become terrorists and adepts of the most radical Islam.

Unfortunately, it must be admitted that the conflict in Syria has spilled beyond its borders, causing destabilization in Iraq and in Lebanon. This is something that Russia has always warned against. Today, we are witnessing a huge number of terrorist attacks in Iraq that are destabilizing the situation. Sporadic fighting broke out between supporters of conflicting religious forces in Lebanon, especially in the area of Tripoli. It tells us that in the worst-case scenario the destabilization of the entire region, particularly the Mashriq, can become a reality.

The fifth feature is the growing threat toward the Christian minority in the Middle East. This minority is close to us not only through religious affiliation, but also in spirit and civilizational and human relations, and the certain historical responsibility of the Russian Orthodox Church and simply sympathy on behalf of the Russian people. If Syrian Christians suffer the fate of the Iraqi Christians, where no more than 20% of them have survived, this will be a major tragedy. In any case, even in the best-case scenario, this will radically change the structure of society and adversely affect its ability to modernize, reinvigorate itself and move on.

Only the sixth feature that is typical of the events in 2013 gives cause for moderate optimism. Despite major threats to stability, Yemen has so far managed to maintain a national dialogue and move forward toward reaching agreements between the conflicting sides. Perhaps, the example of Yemen, if it continues and the situation stabilizes, will serve as a model for conflict resolution in other parts of the Middle East.

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