Between a Crisis and a Catastrophe

13 december 2015

The Future of the Middle East and the World

Yevgeny Satanovsky is President of the Institute of the Middle East.

Resume: By the middle of the second decade of the 21st century it has become clear that the world is moving towards a balance of power that was more typical of the 17th and 18th centuries, with the appropriate geopolitical adjustments. Western influence, with its possibilities and military capabilities, is decreasing, while the East and the South are rising.

The good thing about our world today is that the spread of information leaves little secret about history. To illustrate this I would like to remind our readers about the Anglo-Russian Convention signed in St. Petersburg in 1907, which left Tibet with China, put Afghanistan under British rule, and divided Iran between Britain and Russia, giving the latter control over the Caspian Sea. If the October Revolution of 1917 had not taken place, the Great Game would have been over. The Sublime Porte shrank enormously after World War I, Russia acquired new territories in Eastern Anatolia under the Sykes-Picot Agreement (a special provision gave Russia control over the Black Sea Straits), and the U.S. presence in the Middle East was barely noticeable, while Britain and France played a leading role in the region.   

History knows no ‘ifs.’ The Ottoman Empire collapsed, but so did the Russian Empire, only to rise again as the Soviet Union; however, the Soviet Union disintegrated at the end of the 20th century, sharing the fate of its rivals, the British and French colonial empires. By the middle of the second decade of the 21st century it had become clear that the world was moving towards a balance of power that was more typical of the 17th and 18th centuries, with the appropriate geopolitical adjustments. Western influence, with its possibilities and military capabilities, is decreasing, while the East and the South are rising. Russia is trying to find a balance between them. China, India, and Turkey are regaining their positions on the international stage, as are Japan and Korea, which returned to the world’s economic elite much earlier.

New actors have emerged, including Latin American countries, specifically Brazil, South Africa, Canada, and Australia. These countries have their own niches in the present world order. The U.S. is trying to keep its superpower status as it competes with China and continues to act as the global hegemon, with interests encompassing the entire world. The U.S. still gets involved in one local war after another just to suffer a new defeat and pull out, leaving chaos in its wake. Ukraine has once again become a playing field for a renewed rivalry between the West and Russia. Central Asia is following suit, with the U.S. putting its stakes on Turkmenistan, which sincerely believes that U.S. assistance will protect it from the threat stemming from the south. The U.S. is also trying to expand its influence to other countries in the region, primarily Uzbekistan. Arab countries are destabilized and the Arab Spring, initially directed against secular regimes in the Middle East and actively supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, has developed into a struggle for power between Islamist fighters and the military. 

Huntington was right, Fukuyama was wrong. The war of civilizations is well underway, but no “end of history” or final victory of the liberal Western democracy is anywhere in sight. Globalization will do Europe no good, especially since immigrants from Africa and the Middle East are not going to assimilate and become Europeans, but adjust Europe to their own standards. Millions of immigrants already live in EU member states and tens of millions more are ready to move closer towards European benefits whenever possible. Europe is crawling with all kinds of far-right radicals and Islamists who are turning it into a battlefield rather than a comfortable sanctuary of social democratic liberalism. Europe’s balancing between Breivik and bin Laden does not bode well for anyone. If immigration continues at its current rate, indigenous Europeans will barely account for one-third of the European Union’s population by 2050. 

The path Russia is treading and its destination are a separate issue. What are Russia’s prospects for development (or degradation) if its historical experience forebodes serious upheavals in the 2030s, or the 2040s at the latest, after the ruling elite changes for natural reasons? In fact, Russia’s current problems in the economy, education, and other key areas vital for the successful functioning of the state appear to be a secret only to the government, which is doing nothing to change the direction of those processes. However this article is not about Russia (even though it cannot but be mentioned) but about the current situation in the Middle East and around it – Africa, Europe, Central Asia, and Transcaucasia – and possible prospects. Indeed, everything is interconnected in the world and these connections manifest themselves faster than in the past, including the not-so-distant one.

This was vividly proved by the refugee crisis Turkey provoked when several hundred thousand people (and the number could reach a million by the end of the year) were directed via Greece and the Balkans to Western Europe, primarily Germany. This is in addition to the endless flow of refugees from Africa and the Middle East who head to Italy through Libya, which ceased to be a functioning state after the removal of the Gaddafi regime. UN high-ranking officials say that there are about 60 million refugees in the world and more than 200 million are ready to migrate because of unbearable economic and living conditions in their home countries. In fact, this is only the beginning of a process that may become a new Great Migration for Europe. The author of this article is not ready to believe that European politicians can work out adequate mechanisms for responding to this challenge.

Turkey has pursued several goals in the European immigration crisis. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had to show ahead of the November 1 parliamentary elections that he could handle the crisis he had provoked by supporting the civil war in Syria and rid Turkey of some of the more than three million refugees and immigrants on its territory. Also, he pressured the EU for money to deal with the refugees (which was provided), thus shifting the burden to Europe (mainly to Germany). Finally, he sought to incite NATO’s European countries to confront Bashar al-Assad’s troops in Syria (to no avail now that Russian military aircraft have been sent to that country). The situation clearly shows how much the West is vulnerable to the processes unfolding in the Middle East. But let us take a closer look at the details of those processes.


The Arab Spring witnessed the fall of authoritarian leaders who ruled their countries for decades. However, those leaders were replaced not with liberal democrats, young people, women, technocrats, and human rights activists, but with Islamists. That revolution is running out of steam, as was expected. In Tunisia, the Muslim Brotherhood’s al-Nahda party and its allies have lost control of the country after parliamentary elections. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has been deposed by the military. In Libya, Islamists of all stripes are fighting one another with the support of Saudi Arabia and Qatar (the two Salafi states compete with each other, especially in the Islamic world), while Egypt is backing General Khalifa Haftar and his allies with what used to be Muammar Gaddafi’s army. Yemen has become one of Iran’s most dangerous regional bridgeheads against the Sunni monarchies in Arabia, even though the Saudis and supporting Arab monarchies are opposed in Yemen not by Iranians, but by the Houthis and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Attempts to remove Assad in Syria have stalled and may as well fail, although Damascus could have been a step away from falling to the opposition due to terrorist attacks backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar had it been not for Iran’s support and Russian air strikes. Two military-political and economic alliances have taken shape in the region: one formed by Turkey and Qatar, and the other by Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Military capabilities, industrial potential, and large human resources amassed by Turkey and Egypt as their main strategic advantage complement the financial wealth possessed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, guaranteeing their security if serious problems emerge. And those problems are more than likely, especially given the adventurist policies Qatar and Saudi Arabia pursued in the early 2010s with the connivance of the U.S. and Europe, which had developed a taste for reformatting the Middle East on a whim.

The Turkish-Qatari alliance is based on the similarity of their approaches towards “external support groups.” Both countries patronize all segments of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Hamas and ISIS, even though each has its own projects such as Qatar’s Ahrar al-Sham or pro-Turkish supporters in Syria. Turkey, however, views the Kurds as the main threat. Kurdish statehood or territorial autonomy in Iraq and Syria may increase separatist sentiment in Turkey’s eastern provinces but it definitely cannot threaten Qatar. By contrast, Egypt and Saudi Arabia work together against their common enemy – the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS. But their alliance is not as strong. For the Egyptian military, radical Salafi groups are a natural enemy no different from all other Islamic fundamentalists; for the Saudis, the Islamic militants are allies (with the exception of ISIS, which has “sold out” to Qatar). And this may trigger a conflict of interest in the near future.

The Egypt-Saudi Arabia axis may face its main test of strength with the commissioning of the four-cascade Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile River scheduled for 2017. It will take six years to fill its reservoir, during which the river flow in Egypt will drop by 30 percent (and subsequently by “only” 20 percent if no other waterworks are built on the Nile). As a result, electricity production at the Aswan hydroelectric power plant may decrease by 40 percent, causing an economic and social catastrophe in Egypt given its complex demographic problems. It is doubtful whether Egypt will be able to cope with such a problem without massive outside assistance. It is also doubtful that Saudi Arabia will have enough resources to provide such assistance, since it has to commit them to the Arab coalition in Yemen, the fight against Qatar in Libya, global confrontation with Iran, and support for Syrian groups opposing Assad, let alone the oil price war with the U.S., which is as wasteful for the Saudi budget as it is for U.S. shale oil producers.

The main questions about the current situation in the Middle East include the following: What course will Erdogan take following the victory of his Justice and Development Party in early parliamentary elections on November 1? How will the situation develop in Afghanistan and the “Central Asian Spring” processes outside it? And what will happen to the Islamist groups now that Russian aircraft have begun bombing their positions? The latter may have the most unpredictable effect on the Salafi monarchical regimes in Saudi Arabia, which has been relying on them in its foreign policy for a quarter of a century, and in Qatar, which has been competing with Saudi Arabia on this track for two decades. In fact, experts see the Qatari trail in the Russian passenger jet crash over Sinai and point to Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiyah, just as they clearly saw Saudi Arabia’s intelligence service and its heads, Prince Turki bin Faisal and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, behind al-Qaeda’s activities.


Erdogan, known for his explosive and confrontational outbursts and ambitious plans to turn Turkey into a new Sublime Porte, has a chance to retain control over a one-party government and thus can now focus on amending the constitution in a bid to make Turkey a presidential republic. Indeed, he may actually succeed.

Likewise, Erdogan may embark on a new foreign policy escapade in Syria, whether in an attempt to carve out a “buffer zone” under the pretext of protecting the interests of the local pro-Turkish population, fight the Kurds, or provide massive support to Islamists in Aleppo, which Turkey historically considers to be in its zone of interests. The first and the third options would pit Erdogan against Iran without any prospect of getting U.S. support, of which he is aware. The second scenario would run counter to U.S. plans to attack the ISIS “capital” of Raqqah, where the Kurds are supposed to act as the main assault force. The decision to shoot down the Russian bomber, which has triggered a deep crisis in relations with Moscow and put NATO in a sticky situation, testifies to Erdogan’s readiness to risk it all in a bid to implement his regional strategy.

The U.S.-led coalition can no longer afford a sluggish operation against ISIS with unclear results and a vague timeframe. Given the Russian Air Force’s successes in Syria, this would be tantamount to losing the initiative in the Middle East. Despite the Arab monarchies’ support for certain Islamist groups as a “moderate opposition,” attempts to use Islamic fundamentalists to remove Assad or counterbalancing Iran and the Shiite regime in Baghdad may do their advocates in Western capitals more harm than good. Turkey’s and Erdogan’s interest in keeping ISIS as a partner (for smuggling oil, grain, flour, and archaeological artifacts, selling arms, and trading hostages) and as an opponent of Syrian and Iraqi Kurds did restrain the anti-terrorist coalition, of which Turkey is a member, for some time, but the personal animosity between Erdogan and U.S. President Barack Obama has gone too far for the U.S. to ignore any longer.

Blackmail and threats are Erdogan’s trademark style and this has actually isolated him among his NATO counterparts. The “zero problems with neighbors” policy proclaimed by Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu at the beginning of his career as foreign minister has created conflicts with virtually every one of Turkey’s neighbors over the past decade. Quarreling with Russia on top of it all would be senseless for Turkey, currently locked in a fierce confrontation with Iran over Syria. In fact, Iranian oil and gas exports to Turkey are in danger because of pipeline bombings in eastern Turkey carried out by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. But then, nobody forced Erdogan to break the armistice with the Kurds for the sake of domestic political speculations.

Moreover, no other company would be prepared to build the Akkuyu nuclear power plant in Turkey under the terms offered by Rosatom. Turkey’s future as a world energy hub for gas supplies to Southern and Eastern Europe depends entirely on Russia and its South Stream project, transformed into Turkish Stream. But implementing the project will require more than the existing pipelines linking Turkey with Azerbaijan or the Trans-Caspian Pipeline designed to transport natural gas from Turkmenistan to Europe. The latter project, strongly opposed by Russia and Iran, with China vitally interested in its resources, is no more feasible than building gas pipelines to Turkey from the Arabian Peninsula. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey failed to get Assad to agree with their plans, which essentially triggered the campaign to remove him from power that later became the chief goal of the civil war in Syria.  


“Pipeline wars” in Central Asia are yet to come. Competition for Turkmen gas is growing not only between U.S.-backed Europe and China, but also between the Trans-Caspian Pipeline and TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India). Turkmenistan’s assurances that it has enough natural gas to satisfy all potential consumers have little in common with reality. In the fall of 2015, Turkmenistan replaced Chinese companies with Japanese firms at its giant Galkynysh Gas Field after China had refused to provide new low interest rate loans to Turkmenistan, which is struggling to fill the budget drained by the Asian Games. Now Turkmenistan has no choice but to be a bargaining chip in a new Great Game.

Attempts to play the same game on all tracks have failed. The policy of neutrality proclaimed by former Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov does not allow the U.S. to use the Mary Air Force base in Turkmenistan. The talks on the matter have virtually come to a halt. Turkmenistan has put itself in a tight spot by overlooking security threats coming from Afghanistan and falling short of expectations in Russia, China, and Iran.  Kabul has no control either over the Pashtun provinces in the south or over northern regions populated by ethnic Turkmens, Uzbeks, and Tajiks. Iran controls areas inhabited by Hazara Shia people and more or less secures the border in Sistan and Baluchestan, keeping away drug traffickers and militants from the pro-Saudi terrorist organization Jundullah.

The Afghan government cannot protect the border with post-Soviet republics from the Taliban, who split up after the death of their leader Mullah Omar, but who remain just as dangerous as long as they are supported by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The Taliban is also supported by militants and movements sponsored by Qatar and Turkey, some of which have joined ISIS, including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, other Islamist movements, and parties of Tajiks and Uyghurs. Clearly, the “Syrian troika” – Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, all of which have strong positions in the region – will automatically support any attempts to destabilize post-Soviet countries in Central Asia and remove their secular regimes regardless of the degree of their authoritarianism or contacts with the West. There is no doubt that the U.S. and European Union will welcome these efforts simply because they will create problems for Russia and China.

Whether the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the region’s collective security system is not complete without Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which ignore it and try to play their own game. A legitimate transfer of supreme power in Central Asian states is a serious issue. There is no such tradition, unless one counts leadership succession (as in Turkmenistan) or overthrows (as in Kyrgyzstan). The parliamentary opposition is either not genuine or non-existent. Corruption is rampant. Pro-Islamic sentiment is strong among people, and the movements that back it uphold jihad and have close ties with far-right Islamic radicals and their sponsors, inspired by the idea of a global caliphate. The influence of regional elites, criminal clans, and drug cartels on the situation in Central Asia should also be taken into account since it by far exceeds U.S. leverage.

Drugs are a special issue because they are the main source of income for both people and elites in Afghanistan. The country has turned into the sole producer and supplier of opiates and heroin during the international (but essentially American despite the UN mandate) occupation and will keep this status under any government. Afghanistan will be helped by Pakistan, which wants to control the situation in Afghanistan with Saudi support (as part of geopolitical competition with Qatar and, to a lesser extent, with Turkey). The alliance formed by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan over more than thirty years of cooperation since their joint fight against Soviet troops in Afghanistan is likely to be strengthened through broader nuclear partnership.


Put simply, Saudi Arabia finances Pakistan’s efforts to build up its stocks of medium-range nuclear missiles in order to stand up to India and maintain a nuclear balance. But the Saudis always did this before. The only difference now is that after Iran’s “nuclear deal” with the U.S. and other members of the P5+1 group, which had long attempted to balance out their interests with that Islamic country, Iran is a bigger threat for Saudi Arabia with the sanctions lifted than it was under them. Experts believe that Pakistan will soon provide Saudi Arabia with nuclear weapons, in small amounts, but combat ready. Rather than using these weapons against an external threat, Saudi Arabia will need them as protection in an emergency now that the U.S. has shown during the talks with Iran what it really thinks of its old Middle Eastern allies.

Initially, the main, if not the only, purpose of the plan to create a nuclear weapon free zone in the Middle East was to disarm Israel. But Iran’s nuclear program made it senseless, which it actually was from the very beginning for the simple reason that Pakistan, armed with nuclear weapons and closely connected to conservative Arab monarchies in the Persian Gulf, only belongs to South Asia geographically. In fact, throughout its history Pakistan has always been an integral part of the Middle East. The nuclear arms race in the region is a natural result of the failed policy of sanctions against Iran and of its agreement with the international community, which essentially legitimized its nuclear status. The best solution guaranteeing the security of the entire region would be a non-aggression pact between Israel and Iran. However, in contrast to Israel, Iran is unlikely to make such a step in the foreseeable future.

Israel as such has no claims against its neighbors and wants nothing but its own security. To achieve that, Israel will respond strongly to any attempt to undermine its defense capability, no matter from where such perpetrations come. The appearance of Russian military aircraft in Syria, which prevents Iran from taking it under its full control, is viewed by Israel in terms of positive neutrality. In fact, Israel was the first Western country to begin coordination with Russia over Syria. This stopped Saudi Arabia’s dangerous moves, undertaken in vain for a long time, to draw the Israeli Defense Forces into the war against Iran.


The last point about Israel concerns the disastrous failure of the Israeli-Palestinian “peace settlement” process. The positions of the sides appeared to be completely and ultimately irreconcilable, which they had always been. Israeli society does not approve of the unilateral concessions made to maintain the illusion of talks, partly because of the terrorist attacks on Israel supported by the Hamas leaders in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. The Palestinians’ unwillingness to discuss issues that were supposed to be solved as far back as May 1999 is in stark contrast to the hopes of the 1990s. Some of the most pressing issues are rampant corruption in the Palestinian Authority and a reluctance to build its own state, even though Israel has not dismantled Palestinian self-government mechanisms to avoid assuming responsibility for the Palestinian Arabs.

The refugee crisis, which includes Arabs, may lead the international community to unify its refugee support programs in the near future, thus depriving Palestinians of their privileges. The situation in Jordan, which borders Iraq and Syria, and in Lebanon is more than precarious. Libya’s neighbor Algeria is unstable with its ruling gerontocracy and elites fighting for power; Sudan is still gripped by civil war despite separation from Juba; Somalia is divided between warring clans; Eritrea has been increasingly leaning on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and Djibouti is drawing support from foreign military bases – all this creates a continuous zone of instability. The same is true of the Middle East’s African periphery – Sahara and Saleh – where separatist and radical Islamist movements are destabilizing a large area from Morocco to Mauritania, and a considerable part of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Perhaps the only “good” news about the Middle East is that in contrast to Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Balkans and Transcaucasia literally seem to be an oasis of peace. This clearly shows how much the situation in the region has degraded despite (or rather because of) attempts by the U.S. and its allies to “democratize” it. The collapse of the Schengen agreement under the flow of refugees heading to Germany through the Balkans may become, and most probably will become, the beginning of the European Union’s demise. Turkey and Iran are influencing the situation in the Transcaucasia along with the confrontation between the U.S. and the EU, on the one hand, and Russia, on the other. But this situation in the Balkans and Transcaucasia is relatively stable compared to what it could be. Greece, Serbia, or Hungary will most likely disagree with this, but given the problem of slavery in Iraq, Sudan, and Mauritania, the genocide of Christians in Syria and Iraq, and the extermination of Yezidi Kurds in Iraq, one can clearly see the difference between a crisis and a catastrophe.

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