Fyodor Lukyanov: Profound change has come to the Middle East and Russia has learned the lessons, but what about the US?
While the world’s attention is focused on Ukraine, the Middle East is bubbling under the surface again. No one expected processes there to freeze, but their dynamics are changing. In fact, the direction of these adjustments has been notable for quite some time and it’s becoming more obvious.
The Middle East is increasingly becoming a space in which the course of events is determined by the interaction of regional players, and the role of external forces, traditionally very large, has reduced in relative terms.
Historically, at least for the last century and a half, it has been the other way round. External powers – first the Western European colonial powers, then the US and the USSR – have carried out various forms of expansion, during which they have manipulated relations with each other. The countries of the region have always decried outside interference saying it does not allow them to establish local balance and stability on their own. But at the same time, they have also turned to the great powers themselves, involving them in achieving their goals. As a result, the Middle East has consistently been an arena of entangled interactions, which has guaranteed constant upheaval.
To say that this situation has changed dramatically would be premature. However, the trends in Middle Eastern development follow (or perhaps catalyze) common global patterns. They are as follows.
The capacity of large countries to pursue their own agenda is diminishing, while the role of medium-sized countries is comparatively increasing.’
In absolute terms, the great powers still have more potential, but in relative terms, the gap is shrinking rapidly.
Türkiye is at the center of the current revitalization of the Middle East. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has managed to turn his country into an indispensable, participant in international processes; the Ukrainian crisis has played into his hands in this sense.
This position allows Ankara to speak louder about its regional demands, without taking its American patrons into consideration, let alone the Western Europeans. One can only look on in wonderment at how Erdogan skillfully used an issue that had little to do with Türkiye – the NATO membership of Sweden and Finland. And so on.
The Syrian issue in Turkish politics is a legacy of a previous phase, when on the wave of the Arab Spring ten years ago, Ankara considered – the formerly friendly – Bashar Assad doomed and bet on his fall and possibly Syria’s disintegration. Events have gone differently, in large part because of Moscow’s firm stance. Instead of the expected strategic spoils, Türkiye now has a burden on its shoulders: widespread destabilization along its borders and a confrontation with Kurdish groups, which have been strengthened by a combination of circumstances. The Syrian conflict shook the region as a whole, bringing Iran to the forefront, which consequently alarmed the Arab monarchies of the Gulf.
In the old days, it would have fallen to the US, the relevant Western European states and, in part, Russia to sort out the contradictions. Now, however, their capacity is limited in one way or another. Moscow, of course, still holds the key position, but priorities are now elsewhere, with all that entails. The US, since the end (one might say the failure) of the Arab Spring, has not been able to clearly define for itself in what capacity and in what numbers it intends to remain in the region. Western Europe has lost its strategic sense of purpose, becoming absorbed in its own affairs. Once again, external forces have not been alienated from the game in this field, but their available resources of influence have shrunk in comparison to earlier times.
It turns out that the course of events is now determined by the aspirations of the leading countries in the region. Which are changing and evolving, and so is the situation within each of them. Iran, for example, is facing its most serious protests in years, with calls for the transformation of the existing political and social system. As is often the case in such instances, the opposition movement is poorly organized but reflects the fatigue of a significant part of the population against the established order. The system is probably not under threat, but the mood cannot be dismissed, or at least it needs to be taken seriously. Iran’s position in the region, greatly strengthened over a decade, now depends above all on its ability to ensure domestic stability.
It is impossible to predict what the eventual shift of initiative to regional players will bring. Like great powers, medium-sized countries can do stupid things and make fatal mistakes; Middle Eastern history has demonstrated this many times and will continue to do so. But one thing is worth noting: Regional players will now make their own decisions, whether they are right or wrong, based on their perceptions and capabilities, rather than on the interests of outsiders.
Iran’s position on cooperation with Russia and the nuclear deal, Saudi Arabia’s position on oil prices, and Türkiye’s stance on virtually any topic, are products of their own assessment of current affairs and prospects. And in this situation, the most effective tactic for external forces is not to try to impose something, but to build their interests into the system created by local actors.
Fortunately, this is where Russia has achieved good results over the past few years. The US, on the other hand, has yet to learn this approach.
Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs, chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and research director of the Valdai International Discussion Club.