By the Rivers of Babylon
No. 3 2017 July/September
Dmitry V. Yefremenko

Doctor of Political Science
MGIMO University, Moscow, Russia
Institute of International Studies
Project Executive;
Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences (INION RAN), Moscow, Russia
Deputy Director


SPIN-RSCI: 4587-9262
ORCID: 0000-0001-6988-472X
Researcher ID: Q-1907-2016
Scopus AuthorID: 55372669100


E-mail: [email protected]
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Middle Eastern Order in a State of Half-Decay

More than a century has passed since Britain, France, and Russia arbitrarily divided the vast territories of the Ottoman Empire into areas of their own post-war dominance. The Sykes-Picot Agreement started the process of partitioning the Middle East into countries that cut through regions historically populated by Arabs and Turks, Kurds and Assyrians, Sunnis and Shiites, Christians and Jews, etc. Subsequently, the borders of those countries changed many times, but the great powers remained consistently involved in the process. And yet, although the borders were largely artificial and the risk of conflict was quite high, the Middle Eastern order held for almost a century (assuming the 1920 Treaty of Sevres is the starting point), and some countries in the region developed quite successfully. But the quality of governance and functionality of the State were never high, and the ability to resist centrifugal tendencies was often ensured by harsh—and sometimes downright repressive—regimes. But the U.S. intervention in Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein and the subsequent Arab Spring created such turbulence that the Middle Eastern order started to crumble, putting Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen on the brink of disintegration. 

The paradox is that almost no one wants the existing Middle Eastern states to collapse. This is not only because of adherence to the fundamental principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, but also because the collapse of those Middle Eastern countries would create too many threats for their neighbors and more distant countries. But risks always generate new geopolitical opportunities. Indeed, countries that have declared their commitment to the territorial integrity of Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and other states in the region are keeping an eye on those opportunities. In particular, they are considering scenarios where chaos and internal confrontation gain such momentum that blocking them from the outside would be ineffective, and external players would simply prefer to wash their hands of it all. One of the scenarios currently on the negotiating table for deescalating the crisis in Syria calls for separating territorial enclaves not controlled by the Syrian government and giving them security guarantees from international mediators. 

It is highly probable that a military defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS), a terrorist organization banned in Russia, and particularly the liberation of Mosul, Raqqa and other territories in Iraq and Syria seized by extremists may trigger the disintegration of key states in the region. The current reconfiguration of external and internal forces, directly or indirectly involved in various conflicts in the region, may be regarded as a prelude to greater transformations.  


Over the past eighteen months the armed conflict in Syria and geopolitical processes in the Middle East in general have taken a radical turn due to the Russian military operation to support Syrian government forces. By the summer of 2016, Russia, Turkey, and Iran had developed a new format of interaction aimed at coordinating their positions for the settlement of the Syrian crisis and combating the Islamic State. As U.S. activity on Syria had declined due to Donald Trump’s election campaign and his unexpected victory, the Russia-Turkey-Iran triangle became a political reality that led to negotiations in Kazakhstan to complement the Geneva talks. The successful operations conducted by the Syrian Arab Army (with the support of Russia and Iran) to force armed anti-Assad opposition groups out of Aleppo and by the Free Syrian Army (with the support of Turkey) to push Islamic State militants out of Al-Bab should be considered in the context of joint efforts undertaken by the three countries. The intensity of armed confrontation in Syria has decreased significantly, except for the efforts to crush the Islamic State.   

The election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States stirred hopes for building a broad front led by the U.S. and Russia to destroy ISIS militarily within the shortest possible time. But these hopes turned out to be premature, to say the least. A possible deal with Russia was blocked by a rabid information campaign against Trump and members of his team, who were accused of improper contacts with Moscow. However, the U.S. took some steps to show its resolute return to the Middle East.

Trump made this return as demonstrative as possible when he ordered a missile strike against a government airbase in Syria. While solving several tactical tasks, the Trump administration nevertheless gave no clue as to how it was going to defeat ISIS and raised even more questions about its long-term strategy towards Syria. And yet a new system of coordinates is beginning to emerge. Full-scale support for Israel and a reversal of Barack Obama’s policy towards Iran are key elements of this new system. The U.S. and Iran are heading towards a new standoff. The U.S. missile strike on the Shayrat airbase in Syria reflects Washington’s choice of Iran as its main opponent in the region and Syrian government forces as a target, since the new U.S. administration views Syria as an Iranian ally and client. This sends a strong signal to Russia, whose response to the U.S. attack was quite reserved, which not only made it possible for Russia to maintain contact with the U.S. on the crisis settlement process in Syria, but also work out initiatives that take into account Trump’s new approaches. However, these approaches may prove quite tricky for preserving statehood in Iraq and Syria.


Paradoxically, the U.S. operation to remove Saddam Hussein significantly strengthened Iranian positions both in Iraq and in the Persian Gulf region. As former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer rightfully pointed out, “America was powerful enough to destabilize the existing regional order, but not powerful enough to establish a new one.” Iran largely filled this vacuum. As a result, the U.S. and Iran took steps to divide Iraq into spheres of influence at the end of George W. Bush’s presidential term, but especially during Barack Obama’s presidency. The Iranian nuclear deal sealed in 2015 paved the way not only for lifting sanctions on Iran, but also for starting a dialogue with the U.S. on the future of the Middle East, for which Zbigniew Brzezinski, Robert Gates, and several other leading U.S. foreign policy experts had repeatedly called.

Today we are witnessing a new and radical turn in U.S. policy towards Iran. Attempts to break the Iraqi sector of the Shiite arc or crescent are behind the renewed efforts to isolate Iran. But is this possible? Iran cannot be equated to the Shia majority in Iraq because the latter is not consolidated. Iran is not only an ally and protector, but also a kind of arbiter for Iraqi Shiites. The U.S. may try to rely on one of the Shiite forces in Iraq, but this will most likely trigger an internal conflict among Shiites and prod the majority of them into siding with their brothers in faith in the east. In other words, a new confrontation with Iran will create a situation where the Shia-dominated central government in Baghdad will become even weaker and eventually start gravitating towards Iran.

It is unlikely that the Americans will be able to find strong support among Sunnis until ISIS is defeated or at least forced out of Iraq. But the U.S. may try to form a new, post-ISIS balance of power in Iraq that would take into account the interests of moderate Sunnis and give them a fraction of influence in the central government and control over parts of the territories currently held by ISIS forces. But this task is quite difficult as it is, even without anti-Iranian escapades. In fact, a delay in a new attack on Mosul was caused not so much by military-tactical or humanitarian considerations, as by deep disagreements over who will take and control the city. U.S. attempts to diminish Iran’s influence and strengthen the Sunnis will most likely undermine the Haider al-Abadi government’s positions. The main opponent of the present government in Baghdad—former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki—remains a figure who provokes disagreements between key religious and ethnic groups despite his efforts to form a new broad-based coalition.

With ISIS far from being fully crushed and the U.S. seeking to set back Iran, preserving the integrity of Iraq appears to be an increasingly illusory pursuit. Kurds have become the key to the future of not only Iraq, but of the entire Greater Middle East. In fact, the Kurds in Iraq and Syria are the most valuable U.S. ally in the fight against ISIS in the region. Iraqi Kurdistan has been an important U.S. outpost since 1991. The alliance with the U.S. made it possible for Iraqi Kurds to survive (under Saddam Hussein) and it subsequently gave them autonomy close to sovereignty along with some economic advantages. But the U.S. kept the Kurds from pushing for full independence. However, now that U.S. policy priorities in the region have changed, the situation has become particularly favorable for Iraqi Kurdistan to proclaim its sovereignty. Another factor conducive to this step is that the Kurds control many disputable territories, including large oil fields near Kirkuk. But the situation in Iraq may change in several months and the Kurds will run out of luck.

Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani has called an independence referendum within the next several months. That decision apparently reflects an agreement between the region’s two main parties and the Barzani and Talabani tribes that support them. The central government in Baghdad will most likely have to accept the results of the referendum due to constitutional reasons. But the borders of an independent Kurdistan may be challenged since the current Iraqi Constitution localizes the Kurdish autonomy within the Dohuk, Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, and Halabja provinces. Control over Kirkuk remains an open question because of its valuable oil fields and mixed ethnic composition. The idea of making Kirkuk the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan is quite popular among the Kurds, but doing so may trigger a new confrontation between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (Barzani) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (Talabani), which controls the city. It is highly unlikely that Baghdad will try to force the Kurds out of Kirkuk after the Islamic State’s defeat.

The U.S. officially supports the territorial integrity of Iraq. But under Trump, the U.S. will be less inclined than under Barack Obama and George W. Bush to commit large sums of money and use its influence to prevent Iraq’s disintegration. The U.S. also listens attentively to Israel, which would welcome the emergence of an independent Kurdish state. If Iraqi Kurdistan leaders choose the right time to hold their referendum and proclaim their independence, the U.S. will most likely accept the breakup of Iraq as a fait accompli and focus on consolidating its dominant positions in a new state. If Iran’s influence in Iraq continues to grow, Kurdistan will serve as the main U.S. bridgehead in the territory that is currently part of Iraq. 

Turkey is the main threat to the independence of any part of Greater Kurdistan. However, if Erbil proclaims independence, Turkey is unlikely to resort to violence to suppress the move. The Peshmerga are a serious force, and starting a full-scale war against Iraqi Kurds will inevitably destabilize Turkish Kurdistan and draw Syrian Kurds into the conflict. Both the U.S. and Russia are using their influence to keep Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan from responding too aggressively to the emergence of the first independent Kurdish state. At the same time, Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan are bound by the oil business that may become even more profitable if it is fully legalized through interstate trade. But of course, in order to pacify Erdogan, the leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan will have to distance themselves from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the idea of consolidating Kurdish lands. But these assurances will not make the Kurdish irredenta disappear.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence (it could tentatively be called South Kurdistan) will, on the one hand, mean the collapse of the regional order established by the Sykes-Picot Agreement. On the other hand, South Kurdistan may become a new regional equilibrium in the mid-term, some kind of balancer that will prevent the excessive strengthening of both Turkey and Iran. In this respect, Russia can regard the emergence of South Kurdistan as a positive development.  

The situation of Sunnis is Iraq is coming to the fore as the Islamic State nears defeat. If the Kurdish-controlled territories are separated from Iraq, the share of Shiites in the remaining part of the country will increase, thus prodding Shiites into building a state system that excludes territorial division on religious or ethnic grounds. Sunnis will be offered positions in the central government (possibly by quota) regardless of which Shia political leaders head it. Agreements over the distribution of other important posts may also be amended. For example, the post of president, currently assigned to Kurds, may become part of the “Sunni quota.” But this compromise will have to pass the test from both sides. Radical Shiite groups will continue to push for the maximum advantages from Shia dominance, while many Sunnis will demand control over towns and territories where they have a majority. It is highly unlikely that the advocates of “Sunnistan” will limit their aspirations to just a political struggle. If the authorities in Iraq accept the separation of the Sunni territories, the way will be paved for the ultimate disintegration of Iraq.  

External forces will undoubtedly be drawn into these processes, with the main confrontation flaring up between Iran and the Arab monarchies. The U.S. and Turkey will also significantly contribute to the conflict. As for Russia, it should be vitally interested in strengthening political, economic, and military-technical cooperation with the government in Iraq as well as with South Kurdistan, whether autonomous (for the time being) or independent. Russia does not want to get directly involved in processes that may lead to the emergence of “Sunnistan” in Iraq. At the same time, it is important to maintain contact with those Sunni forces in Iraq that are determined to look for political solutions to existing problems.

The territorial separation of the Sunnis in Iraq will not affect Russia directly, but through Syria. The emergence of “Sunnistan” will also reverberate through the region. But will today’s Middle East ever look like the map drawn by Army Lt. Col. (ret.) Ralph Peters? Borders can only be drawn along ethnic and sectarian lines when leading domestic and international actors are not prepared to commit enough resources to avert such a scenario. What makes the situation around Iraq distinct is that key actors are unlikely to accumulate and use sufficient resources in order to prevent the partial or complete disintegration of Iraq. The situation in Syria is different because the major external players have already committed significant resources to support the warring factions and achieve their geopolitical goals.


Just like the liberation of Mosul will determine the future of Iraq, the contours of Syria’s future will start shaping up after ISIS is pushed out of Raqqa and other Syrian territories. Although ISIS structures of governance have already been relocated from Raqqa to the vicinity of Deir ez-Zor, taking Raqqa will be an event of great political and symbolic significance. It seems that the U.S. and Russia have agreed in principle that Raqqa will be stormed under American control. It is up to the U.S. now to choose the striking force that will do the fighting on the ground. Syrian Kurds are the most likely choice, which will significantly restrict U.S.-Turkish activities in Syria and in the region as a whole.  

This choice is quite acceptable for Russia, which maintains working contact with Syrian Kurds and calls for constitutional guarantees of autonomy in the territories under their control. With the tacit consent of the U.S. and Russia, Kurdish territories can be scrambled together. But international actors will not support the independence of Rojava or its integration with Iraqi Kurdistan in the foreseeable future. Rojava may become a very important factor of stabilization in Syria, as well as a deterrent against Turkey’s neo-Ottoman aspirations.  

After ISIS has been forced out of Raqqa, control over this city and some of the adjacent territories will most likely be handed over to one or several Sunni groups opposing Bashar al-Assad. By that time, it should become clear how to implement the agreements on de-escalation zones. Four scenarios are possible:

  • The conflict flares up again, forces regroup, and a broad coalition is formed to overthrow Assad.
  • The conflict is allowed to simmer in order to tie up the Syrian government forces, opposing Sunni groups, Iran and Hezbollah, Russia, Turkey, and Arab monarchies.
  • New efforts are launched to settle the conflict on the basis of an agreement addressing key issues between Russia and the U.S. at first and then between other domestic and external actors.
  • Key actors give their tacit consent to Syria’s breakup after the possible disintegration of Iraq.

The first scenario means that the crisis will keep growing and may develop into a large regional war, because a broad anti-Assad coalition will inevitably enter into confrontation with Iran and Russia. The second scenario is less risky for both the U.S. and Israel, even though flare-ups and regroupings are also possible.  Also, it gives no guarantees against the reincarnation of ISIS or similar terrorist organizations. 

 The search for a political solution may be fruitful if Russia and the U.S. agree on the formula for a compromise not only on Syria, but the entire Middle East. Such a compromise may also include agreements concerning Russian and American interests in other parts of the world. However, an agreement between Russia and the U.S. is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for a breakthrough in settling the Syrian crisis. The reverse side of a multipolar world is that even an agreement between the U.S. and Russia cannot guarantee the desired result in such regional conflicts. 

In general, a political settlement in Syria may include a formula for the political system, economic influence, and security that will guarantee long-term peaceful co-existence of different ethnic and religious groups, with broad autonomy of the territories under their control and an inclusive central government. It could also draw on the Taif National Reconciliation Accord, which put an end to the civil war in Lebanon, and the Iraqi Constitution of 2005. However, in the case of Syria, the probability that Russia, the U.S., Iraq, Turkey, and the Arab monarchies will get involved is quite high. Thus the Syrian settlement will require a compromise on their further presence in the country if at least Syria’s formal integrity is preserved. One may assume that the presence of certain external actors in one form or another will become an element of security guarantees for different parties involved in the Syrian conflict. The creation of de-escalation zones, which are not controlled by the central government, will speed up all processes. The territorial configuration will most probably change, but the Americans are likely to stay in Syrian Kurdistan, the Russians will keep their presence on the Mediterranean coast and in territories populated predominantly by Alawites, and the Turks will dig in in Idlib. A key question is the military presence in Syria of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah groups. This is utterly unacceptable for the Trump administration, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, and quite undesirable for Turkey. However, it is these forces that provide al-Assad with reliable support. 

If a compromise is possible at all, Russia should become the main guarantor for the Alawites and their political and security structures. Russia’s exit from Syria, whether voluntary or due to some extraordinary circumstances, would create a power vacuum that the U.S., Turkey, and the Gulf countries, on the one hand, and Iran, on the other hand, would immediately try to fill. Adverse consequences for the region would not be far off. In other words, the time when Russia could contemplate an exit strategy seems to have passed. It would be virtually impossible now to guarantee a negotiated settlement in Syria or at least a lasting truce without Russia’s substantial military presence in that country.

Russia’s long-term military presence in Syria is more preferable for Turkey and Israel than Iran’s. In fact, only Russia’s presence can ensure a balance of power in Syria acceptable for Iran if the latter is forced to give up plans to deploy its troops and Hezbollah units in Syria due to external pressure or domestic problems.

The issue of Assad’s future could delay negotiations indefinitely. But unless this issue is resolved in a civilized manner, there will be no chance to form an inclusive central government in Syria. Currently only Russia and Iran, acting together, can tell al-Assad how long he can stay in office and how he should leave. Iran can be convinced into supporting Russia’s position if the Iranian leaders see an opportunity to ensure their interests when new people come to power in Syria. On the whole, Iran is facing a serious dilemma in Syria. Iran would like to keep the current state of things, which allows it to extend its influence in some form or another to Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen as parts of a single “Islamic resistance front.” Iran would also like to see the Shiite branch of Islam, currently stymied by the Saudi monarchy, consolidate its positions on the Arabian Peninsula. However, overstrain becomes a serious obstacle towards this goal. If Iran nonetheless decides to keep or even expand its military presence in Syria (including creation of naval bases in the Mediterranean), it may end up in dangerous isolation. An alternative could be guarantees of political influence in Damascus in exchange for the withdrawal of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah units from Syria. Political leaders in Damascus agreeable for Iran should keep their levers of power. Essentially this entails preventing a politically motivated restructuring of militarily efficient units of the Syrian Arab Army (including the 5th Assault Corps currently being created), the Republican Guard, and Alawite-dominated security services. This will most likely be the red line and price Syria’s opponents will have to pay if they are truly committed to a political settlement and territorial integrity in Syria. 

If the Syrian state collapses, the leading actors will have to understand that neither side can win in this conflict, and that no acceptable formula can be found for peaceful co-existence of the main ethnic and religious groups. But external forces will keep their presence in different parts of Syria even after its breakup.

The partial disintegration of Iraq (after the separation of Kurdistan) could provide an external impetus for the breakup of Syria. Yet the real problems will begin with the emergence of “Sunnistan” in Iraq, which more than likely will merge with Sunni-controlled regions of Syria and cover a territory almost identical to what ISIS controlled before the offensive on Mosul and Raqqa. But even if the international community recognizes the disintegration of Syria as a fait accompli, relative peace can only be achieved in some parts of the country. “Sunnistan” will seek to control Damascus and Aleppo, while “Alawistan” will remain under external pressure as long as Iran has a substantial military commitment there. Finally, once Syria falls apart, it will be hard to stop the chain reaction sending ripples of disintegration throughout Lebanon, Jordan, and the entire Arabian Peninsula. Turkish Kurdistan and Iranian provinces with large Kurdish, Azerbaijani, and Arab communities will also face the risk of destabilization.


Let us take another look at the prospects of trilateral interaction between Russia, Iran, and Turkey. The level of cooperation they achieved in the second half of 2016 and the beginning of 2017 is truly unprecedented. But the idea of such cooperation is not new. In his work The Russian-Eastern Agreement of 1896, Ismail Gasprinski, a renowned Crimean Tatar intellectual and Jadidism ideologue, suggested that the Russian Empire could pursue a positive and mutually beneficial rapprochement with both Turkey and Persia. Gasprinski was critical of the West’s goals: “Acting either against Russia or against Muslims, Europeans in both cases reap the benefits and move forward… If one looks at how heartlessly Europe oppresses the whole of the East economically, turning into a beast each time when it comes down to a pence, centime or pfennig, it becomes clear that the East should expect no good from the West.” Gasprinski suggested making an agreement with the Ottoman Empire and Persia to establish Russian naval bases on the Mediterranean Sea and in other places close to the Indian Ocean. He believed that such an agreement would have allowed Turkey and Persia to “calmly engage in internal revival, borrowing forms not from the West, but from Russia as a country that is closer to them civilizationally and in terms of people’s way of life.”

One hundred and twenty years later, Turkey and Iran have complicated relations with the West, sort of giving Gasprinski’s ideas a new lease on life. Under certain circumstances, some elements of this discourse may be reproduced in modern political rhetoric. However, it was the temporary alignment of divergent interests of each of the three countries due to internal and external factors that provided a real basis for the Russia-Turkey-Iran triangle. Ultimately, Russia, Turkey, and Iran will draw together, but not along anti-Western lines, and their possible estrangement will certainly not be caused by a sudden outburst of affection for the “values of the free world.”

There is no guarantee that the triangle will last in the mid- or long term. Even a slight change in the combination of factors or efforts that brought Russia, Iran, and Turkey together could undermine their interaction and eventually upset it completely. In fact, Turkey may yield to U.S. pressure aimed at wrecking the alliance. If this pressure coincides with internal transformations accompanying the establishment of Erdogan’s personalistic regime, a revision of Turkey’s positions will ruin the triangle.

At the same time, there are some important circumstances that help keep the trilateral format working, since the only alternative to the Astana peace talks would be a new outbreak of more violent confrontation in Syria. In addition, with the trilateral format gone, the sides will no longer be able to control each other’s activities. The lack of mutual trust between Russia, Turkey, and Iran can be made up for if each of them opts for a strategy that gives all of them a positive balance of gains/losses, while reducing related risks to an acceptable level. 


Russia needs to reevaluate its goals in the Greater Middle East. While the decision to provide direct military support to al-Assad was made in the fall of 2015 largely in the context of the Ukraine crisis and Western efforts to isolate Russia, in 2017 a foreign policy priority is to consolidate Russian positions as one of the centers of power in the region.

It should be a key position that allows Russia to use its influence and have a foothold in different parts of the region. This means that Russia should not be viewed solely as al-Assad’s ally or a secret patron of the Shiite arc. It is vitally important to avoid a situation where Russia’s actions will be interpreted as prejudiced against certain religious or ethnic groups in the region. Russia should maintain partner relations with Iran, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, and Jordan, and raise the dialogue with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates to the level of partnership. And, of course, Russia should achieve an acceptable level of understanding with the U.S. and its main NATO partners on how to resolve conflicts in the region (including coordination of efforts if Iraq and Syria fall apart). By and large, this can be viewed as an attempt to transform the Russia-Turkey-Iran triangle into a multilateral format incorporating all key actors in the Greater Middle East. This task cannot be solved without Russia.

Russia’s long-term presence in the region will require considerable resources. Clearly, Russia should offset those costs by gaining serious economic preferences in Syria and other parts of the Greater Middle East, including participation in post-war reconstruction and development of natural resources. Political and military-strategic achievements should be converted into economic dividends.

Ultimately, our policy in the region should become part of a comprehensive strategy aimed at creating favorable conditions for the development of Russia as a country that helps, along with China, reformat the geo-economic and geopolitical landscape in Greater Eurasia. This process will have to go hand in hand with the integration of the Eurasian Economic Union and China’s Silk Road Economic Belt project, the expansion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the creation of continental transport and logistics chains, as well as latitudinal and longitudinal development corridors. The Russia-Turkey-Iran triangle could provide the basis for this process in the Greater Middle East. Interest from Middle Eastern countries in mega projects associated with Greater Eurasia’s geo-economics may become an important factor encouraging the search for compromises and relaxation of tension. Greater Eurasia will gain integrity only when the stabilized Greater Middle East becomes its natural part. However, the latter forebodes new turbulence since global geopolitical transformations will inevitably meet resistance from some of the national and supranational actors seeking to preserve their privileged positions in the present world order.