World in 100 years // Analysis

04 june 2012

Future of the Greater Middle East

Pyotr Stegniy Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation
A sign warning of the danger of landmines
in the outlying fields hangs on a barbed-wire
fence near the mountainous demarcation
line between the Israel-Syrian border in the
Golan Heights Thursday Jan. 13, 2000

The major transformations, shaping the environment of the Greater Middle East, more and more insistently bring up the question of whether the “Arab spring” will lead to a redivision of the existing national boundaries. What will the political map of the Greater Middle East look like in, say, twenty years?

Minefield of conflicts

The question is not at all idle. At least, because the geopolitical evaluation of the events taking place in the region and, consequently, the response of outside forces to such events, directly depend on the answer to this question.

The question isn’t a non-issue, either. The Middle East region, now on the move, has inherited a lost of problems stemming from the fact that the national boundaries, which artificially originated at the times of the colonial epoch, do not correspond to the ethnic dispersal areas. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood believes that the boundaries of today’s Syria are a sad echo of the Sykes-Picot agreement. The Muslim Brotherhood is sure that in the “Islamic and democratic Syria” Sunnites, Alavites, Kurds and Druses may peacefully co-exist. But Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran are about to be haunted by the phantom of the Kurdish national identity, the nucleus of which is already quite autonomously operating in Iraq.

Today the Greater Middle East (GME) resembles a minefield of potential ethnic and boundary conflicts, ready to go off at any reckless move. The tribal elites of oil-rich Cyrenaica openly show that they aim to break away from Tripoli and Fezzan. The border conflicts in South Sudan, between Saudi Arabia and Yemen are far from resolution, the dispute between UAE and Iran about the ownership of the islands in the Persian Gulf has not been settled yet, and it’s been decades of the search for the answer to the Western Sahara problem. Who knows what will happen to the Sanjak of Alexandretta, today’s Turkey’s province Hatay, in case of change of the regime in Damascus.

Today the Greater Middle East (GME) resembles a minefield of potential ethnic and boundary conflicts, ready to go off at any reckless move.

And what about problems of multi-confessional and multi-ethnic states such as Turkey and Iran? And problems of Lebanon that is still on the way of transforming its political system of inter-confessional balances, Saudi Arabia with its 10 percent Shi’ite population on the border with Iran, and Iranian Azerbaijan?

The list of potential conflict situations, simmering throughout from Morocco to Afghanistan, is not exhaustive, but there is no need to add to it, the size of the problem is clear.

It is less clear how exactly the situation in the region will develop, specifically, in relation to possible changes of the political map of GME. Will the new regional elites coming to power be predominantly Islamic, ready and capable to go after global approaches to fighting separatism? And which principle – narrow (“wataniya”) or extensive (“kaumiya”) nationalism – will be used to build the regional agenda? And how (especially, in case of intensification of separatism trends) will the powerful outside players behave, primarily, Americans who, as early as the beginning of the 20th century, asserted, by word of President Woodrow Wilson, recognition of the right of nations to self-determination?

Ralph Peters: Redrawing the
Middle East map."Before" and "After".

It is clear that these questions are rather rhetorical. Only time can show how in reality such a complex and multi-functional system as GME will develop. However, the general vector of development and the fundamental mechanisms, within the bounds of which the new Greater Middle East will develop, can be put under discussion already now, if, of course, we assume that they are in line with the common logics of the functioning of the international relations system.

In this case it can be asserted with reasonable assurance that there are two main scenarios of how the situation in the GME region will develop in future. For purposes of the discussion they may be referred to as the Versailles (by analogy with the “re-division of Europe” after the First World War) and the Westphalian (referring to the 1648 Westphalia Peace) matrixes. In the first case we are talking about post-war settlement (particularly, about the division of the Arab domains of the Ottoman Empire) with the outside forces taking the lead, whereas the second case implies sustained and painful process of “self-development” of a democratic commonwealth of national states.

Versailles Matrix

The change of elites, followed, as any revolution, by steep social and economic expectations of the population, proved to be fraught with the danger that the region is now likely to turn to Islamism, rather than to democracy.

Many in the West, especially, at the initial stage, paralleled the “Arab spring” to the events in the Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s – beginning of the 1990s. To a certain extent, the analogy is reasonable. In both cases the implication of what eventually happened was about breaking down the governmental and political framework formed during the period of the block confrontation under the predominant Soviet influence. Naturally, amid the euphoria from winning the “cold war” the West counted not just on the global support but also on thrusting democratic tendencies forward.

Ironically, but this is exactly where there was a trap, and quite a dangerous one. Accelerating a historical process, re-arranging, as was once done in Versailles, the political map of the world, is basically a hopeless enterprise. Then, just as now, an attempt to find a common, ideology-driven denominator for solution of a complex of diverse, and mainly geopolitical, problems could not but lead to major strategic setbacks. Today’s problems of the European Union come, to a great extent, as a consequence of its boosted expansion, which turned out to be an extra burden on the well-being of the “old Europeans”. The Middle East is facing a similar story: the change of elites, followed, as any revolution, by steep social and economic expectations of the population, proved to be fraught with the danger that the region is now likely to turn to Islamism, rather than to democracy.

“Peters Map” in video

To those who remember the last years of the existence of the Soviet Union with its reflex support of the national liberation movements stemming from the unstinting conviction in the ultimate triumph of communism, the present situation in the world where democracy is boosted looks like repetition of the same mistakes only reversed in sign.

Even more alarming are the parallels to the Versailles Peace, which were also based on the ideas that seemed attractive on the surface but were too much away from reality. Reshaping of the Balkans and the Eastern Europe in 1919-1923 was also fuelled by the euphoria from the advent of the age of democracy and eternal peace. But everybody knows the outcome of the armchair framing of the new Europe on the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian, German, Russian and Ottoman Empires. The road to the Second World War was paved with very good intentions.

All the same, it seems that the authors of the American concept of the re-arrangement of the Greater Middle East operate with the same ideas as the Versailles system architects. In any case, the notorious “Peters Map”, reflecting the approach of the right wing of the American expert society to the state political configuration of the “New Middle East”, looks like development of W. Wilson’s ideas in the context of the new environment. It is hard to believe that the ideas of “aggregating” Jordan by means of “disaggregating” Saudi Arabia, creating the “Islamic Sacred State” around Mecca and Medina, the Kurdish state (with an access to the Black Sea), Baluchistan, separate Shi’ite and Sunni states in the territory of Iraq are anything but a political provocation with obscure objectives.

The regional political culture, traditionalistic systems of checks and balances have been forming in GME for centuries according to another logic, in which the patriarchal morals have always ranked above the political expediency.

It is clear that the creativity of Ralph Peters and his adherers is not in the mainstream of America’s approaches to the future of GME. Yet, his “map” is a spoon of oil tar in the democratic barrel of honey. In any case, it is difficult to shake the feeling that America’s official approach proceeds, among other things, from the logic of easing access to the national wealth of the region’s countries, primarily, to the energy resources, by creating unviable mini-states – “somalization” of the Middle East, in a way.

What is more – and this is, probably, the most important thing, - already the first lessons of the “Arab spring” strongly demonstrate that a simplified, arithmetical (and, in fact, Versailles) approach to solving national and ethnic problems in the Middle East does not work, just as it did not work in Europe, either. The regional political culture, traditionalistic systems of checks and balances have been forming in GME for centuries according to another logic, in which the patriarchal morals have always ranked above, or, to be more exact, have determined the political expediency.

Alexander the Great and Napoleon understood that it was important to respect not only the faith but also superstitions of the East. Hence, up to this day they are still well spoken of, both in Alexandria and Damascus. Salah al-Din and Richard the Lion Heart managed to reach, even though a temporary compromise with regards to Jerusalem. But it is also true that seven centuries later, R. Kipling, a minstrel of romanticized colonialism, wrote the sacramental words: “West is West, and East is East, and never the twain shall meet”.

A metaphor, of course, but a viable one.

Westphalian Matrix

When applied to GME, the Westphalian matrix means, that decisions that are far-reaching for the region’s nations will be made by the region’s countries themselves, without any outward interference and in strict compliance with the requirements of the international law.

An alternative plan of the “armchair” re-arrangement of GME could be the path that Europe has been following for the last three and half centuries. It started in 1648, in Westphalia’s Munster and Osnabruk, when the Europeans put an end to anti-reform wars (an extended period of civil and religious infighting) by making a double agreement on inter-confessional reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants and recognition of the right of “nation-states” to exercise its sovereignty. Basically, it was the Peace of Westphalia that laid the foundation for the development of the modern European and, afterwards, the global system of international relations based on the force of rule and not on the rule of force.

The European experience of creating a commonwealth of democratic national states shows that it is a long and complex historical process that admits no forced and, even more so, ideology-driven solutions. Europe has gained a most extensive, though not entirely blameless, experience both of association of states (Germany, Italy in the 19th century) and “controlled dissolution” of two- and multi-national states (Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia in the 20th century), let alone exchange of population, exercise of the right of option, ensuring rights of national minorities.

Westfaelischer Friede in Muenster.
The Ratification of the Treaty of Münster.
15 May 1648. Gerard ter Borch

It is in the general interests that this experience proves to be sought after also for solving the national and ethnic problems accumulated in GME. In fact, the breakdown of the authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, initiated during the “Arab spring”, may (if it evolves not as opposed to, but in line with the international practices) become another stage of the global historical process, which may be conventionally called as extension of the Westphalian legal framework. Following the Eastern Europe and the Balkans, the Greater Middle East may join the association of states, relations among which are based on common values – democracy, respect for human rights, and free market. But it may as well remain aside if it does not feel a response towards itself, and readiness of the other party to play by the same rules.

A key condition for holding the events developing in the region within the framework of the world historical process is to give up substituting the international law founded on the absolute respect for the national sovereignty with political expediency. If this line is crossed, it will inevitably lead to the point of an inter-civilizational conflict. This aspect must be kept in view also in the process of the currently on-going discussions concerning the “responsibility to protect” concept.

When applied to GME, the Westphalian matrix means, in the first place, that decisions that are far-reaching for the region’s nations, including as regards possible changes of the national boundaries, will be made by the region’s countries themselves, without any outward interference and in strict compliance with the requirements of the international law.

And one last thing. The experience of building up a homogeneous democratic Europe shows that a necessary condition for a similar process to be launched in GME is to settle inter-confessional contradictions. In the present regional situation it is the evolving confrontation between Sunnites and Shiites. Today it is the main link by dragging out which one can unfold the entire chain. Europe’s Westphalian experience, which in many respects has determined its today’s multiculturalism, alongside with the complicated realities of multinational and multi-confessional Russia with its 17-million Muslim population, is also invaluable when it comes to finding a path to reconciliation in the Islamic world.

The world is one. And this is obvious if it evolves according to the Westphalian and not the Versailles matrix.

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Pyotr Stegniy, “Future of the Greater Middle East,” Russian International Affairs Council, 04 June 2012,

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Date: 24 june 2014

Author: BruntFCA


Well it sure seems that the ME is unfolding along the lines of the Ralph Peters map your attempts at irony not withstanding.

Check out the global research article too; according to the article the Ralph Peters map was discussed in Tel Aviv in 2006.

Date: 14 march 2013

Author: Maria Prosviryakova

I agree with Mr. Timofeev. If it were not for mutual misunderstanding, we would not be where we are these days. Perhaps, more academic/cultural exchanges could be part of a solution.

Date: 14 march 2013

Author: Иван Тимофеев

I am afraid this is a common problem. The understanding of Russia in the US is less in comparison with the Cold War period.

Date: 13 march 2013

Author: Stephen Blank

I am no Middle East expert but Ambassador Stegny is quite wrong if he thinks Ralph Peters speaks for anyone other than himself. It simply is not the case that Washington is thinking of redrawing territorial boundaries in the Middle Est except trying to bring about a two state solution inI srael. But this leads me to a bigger problem. It often seems to me that despite our being twenty plus years from the Cold War that Russian experts understand less about America today than they did during the Cold War and seem to base their information on eccentric sources. And the Russian government's assessments are even worse

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