Middle East // Analysis

23 january 2017

Middle East at the regional security crossroads

Alexey Khlebnikov Middle East expert and Russian foreign policy analyst, MSc Global Public Policy, Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota. PhD candidate, RIAC expert.
REUTERS/Mukhtar Kholdorbekov
Participants of Syria peace talks attend
meeting in Astana

Syrian civil war can be seen as the key to the stabilising the entire region. Serving as a magnet for jihadist fighters from all over the world and being the arena where interests of global, regional and local powers have been clashing for the last six years, Syria has become a crucial regional issue. This is why Syrian crisis resolution will have a huge impact on the entire region and will help to bring stability to the Middle East.

Recent Russia-Turkey rapprochement, the formation of the Ankara-Moscow-Tehran triumvirate, their cooperation in Syria and the newly negotiated ceasefire agreement–provide a good chance to create a new trend in the regional security architecture that could help to stabilise the region. Pacified Syria would bring not only peace and stability to its people and to the neighbouring countries, but would also contribute to the formation of the new Middle East security system.

Fragmentation of the Arab world and regional security system

With the fragmentation of the traditional 20th-century security system in the Middle East which was centred around three major Arab states–Egypt, Iraq and Syria–and traditional non-Arab actors–Iran and Turkey, the region became more unstable and turbulent. Since 2003 in Iraq, and later in 2011 in Egypt and Syria that system has been dismantled. With the decline of the above-mentioned traditional Arab powers, Saudi Arabia emerged as a new power broker in the region. Riyadh-led alliance of the oil-rich Gulf monarchies has significantly increased its role in the Middle Eastern affairs going beyond their domains.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar are involved in Syrian conflict financing various radical groups trying to oust the regime of Bashar al-Assad: they have already invested a lot to simply give up their efforts in Syria and let Iran enjoy its rising regional influence which only complicates the resolution of the Syrian conflict. In addition, the Saudi-led war in Yemen against Houthi rebels creates extra hot spot in the region giving radical Islamists another safe haven simultaneously undermining Gulf states’ image as they are incapable of winning the war they initiated. Besides, huge financial aid coming from the GCC countries to Egypt turned once an influential regional player into a paralysed giant with the whole set of unresolved economic, social and political issues who is largely dependent on the external financial aid and unable to influence any regional issue in a serious way.

On the one hand, all those processes seem quite natural and logical as the Saudi-led GCC formation is filling the vacuum left by Egypt and Syria simultaneously fearing the rise of Iran. But on the other hand, it exacerbates regional confrontation along sectarian lines which put the region on the verge of collapse.

Previously, security architecture of the Middle East was based on the fragmented character of the Arab states, their inability to unite and create strong regional force, and on the balancing partnerships between them and non-Arab regional actors–Iran and Turkey. That provided the region with relatively simple and more or less working system of checks and balances. Previously, non-Arab actors played quite marginal role in the Middle East affairs if to compare to the current situation. Today, with almost entire territory between Turkey, Iran and the Gulf stuck in chaos and the only regional actor capable of being a challenger is busy fighting a war in Yemen and struggling with low oil prices, Ankara and Tehran aim at exploiting this time to their utmost advantage. They both want to beef up their positions in the Middle East by securing a place in the future regional security architecture.

As a result, we witness a significant change in regional dynamic–the role of non-Arab powers, Iran and Turkey, in the regional affairs increases putting Saudi Arabia and the GCC in a tight spot. Besides, it is happening against the gradual change of the U.S. role in the Middle East, the new U.S. administration which is likely to continue the politics of limited involvement into the region, the war in Yemen, and low oil prices. This is why Saudi Arabia is so desperate to stand for its positions in the region. The country understands that the balance of power in the region tilts not in its favour.

Huge financial aid coming from the GCC countries to Egypt turned once an influential regional player into a paralysed giant with the whole set of unresolved economic, social and political issues.

This is why the current period can be characterised as the grand transformation which will result in the new Middle East security architecture. It is going to define regional dynamics and trends.

The Grand Transformation

The war in Syria is at the epicentre of this grand transformation. The future of the new regional security system will depend on the outcomes of the Syrian conflict. The distribution of power in the aftermaths of the war will be at the core of the new system.

This is why major regional actors, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, want to stand by their interests and positions in Syria to the end. In addition, we should put US unwillingness to be involved in Syria into this context and get the situation where regional powers started to flirt with Russia trying to have Moscow by their side when it is necessary. Having conflicting interests (it does imply that they have none common), Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, attempt to improve their relations with Russia to use it against each other. In the Syrian context, Turkey and Iran have more common interests (Kurdish issue is one of the most important) than Saudi Arabia with them, which allowed Tehran and Ankara to establish a sort of a new alliance with Moscow.

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Having Iran and Turkey on board, Russia sidelines the US and Saudi Arabia from defining Syria's fate. Moreover, Moscow gets more control over regional dynamics: Turkey enjoys quite good relations with Saudi Arabia and is a NATO member which makes it convenient interlocutor and a channel for transmitting necessary messages from Moscow.

However, new Iran-Russia-Turkey “alliance” brings in certain difficulties which might play against its members. All three countries are non-Arab states which does not add legitimacy to them in the eyes of the Arab street. According to the Zogby Research Service survey 2016 of Turkey and Iran favourability ratings among Arab states decline. What is more, strong majorities in the Arab world see Russia’s role in the region (including Moscow’s role in Syria) as negative, although in Saudi Arabia and Egypt Russia’s favourability ratings are improving. This is why the reaction from the GCC, in particular from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Egypt will be very important. Therefore, it is quite logical to have an influential Arab state in this sort of “alliance” and Saudi Arabia might play that role. Being the most capable Arab state in terms of financial, military power and influence outside its borders, Riyadh could have been a valuable addition to the new security formation.

With the new Trump administration, Saudis feel even less comfortable than before. Trump’s approach to Syria which prioritises defeating ISIS and Jabhat an-Nusra (now Jabhat Fateh ash-Sham) while cooperating with Russia, makes Saudi Arabia worried about remaining Iranian influence there. This is why Riyadh started to look for closer ties with Russia as an alternative to make sure Iranian influence in the Middle East is in check.

It is very important that on 27, December 2016 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested Saudi Arabia and Qatar be invited to the Syria talks to be held in the Kazakh capital Astana on 23, January 2017. On the one hand, it confirms that Arab regional powers should be part of the process, while on the other hand, it indicates Turkish willingness to have a stronger position in the new format by having Saudi Arabia and/or Qatar on board backing Ankara on anything to counterbalance Iran.

Trump’s approach to Syria which prioritises defeating ISIS and Jabhat an-Nusra (now Jabhat Fateh ash-Sham) while cooperating with Russia, makes Saudi Arabia worried about remaining Iranian influence there.

This is why the beginning of 2017 might witness the first signs of the new regional security system coming out of the Russia-Iran-Turkey initiative.

Russia’s role

Although many experts prematurely argue that Russia’s role in the Middle East will continue to grow at the expense of the declining US influence in the regional affairs, it is quite far from reality. Russia’s involvement into Syrian conflict made many thinks of Russia’s big come back to the Middle East. The reality is that Russia neither wants nor has a capacity to increase its involvement in the Middle East.

Undoubtedly, Russia’s involvement in Syria and its military reinforcement (two military bases in Latakia and Tartus) should not be ignored. But in general, it does not change Russia’s overall approach of very limited involvement into the region and does not allow Moscow to pursue a pro-active foreign policy in the Middle East. Russia’s policy in the region still remains largely reactive.

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The Middle East has never been a priority for modern Russia. Even on the conceptual level, none of Russia’s foreign policy documents prioritised the region. The new Russian Foreign Policy Concept released on 1, December 2016 lists the Middle East as number five regional priority after the post-Soviet space, Euro-Atlantic (Europe and the US), Arctic and Asia Pacific. Latin America concludes the list.

Historically, Middle East was of the marginal importance Russia. Even during the Cold War, the region was just one of the “battlefields” where the Soviet Union tried to confront and limit American influence.

Currently, Moscow’s policy in the region is majorly driven by the security concerns with fighting terrorism among top priorities. In fact, it could be said that Russia tries to apply “lead from behind” approach in its Middle East policy once pioneered by the U.S. Russia clearly understands that it does not have enough resources and power to increase its involvement in the region and to take extra responsibility alone. It simply can’t afford it.

This is why Moscow chose to enhance its ties with the regional actors who have more capacity and power to influence the situation on the ground. Being a part of the Middle East, Turkey and Iran are naturally interested in playing a bigger role in the region as it directly affects their national security. By bringing Turkey and Iran together Moscow tries to launch a new regional format where major Middle Eastern powers could work together. As it was previously mentioned, Saudi Arabia might become next to join this format to increase its legitimacy.

Having Iran and Turkey on board, Russia sidelines the US and Saudi Arabia from defining Syria's fate.

Therefore, Russia pursues two major goals in the Middle East. First is to become a mediator in the region through creating a mechanism, capable of helping major powers to solve regional problems. Second is to be able to influence regional affairs by not being heavily involved.

In the end, Russia, as well as China, are rightly driven by the question: “Why it is us who should take care of the mess the US made in the Middle East?” Taking all that into account, the limited involvement strategy with the gradually increasing role of the regional actors might become the one to ultimately work in the Middle East. With the new phase of the Syria conflict and changing dynamics in the region, this year will show whether the new security system in the Middle East will ultimately start working.

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Alexey Khlebnikov, “Middle East at the regional security crossroads,” Russian International Affairs Council, 23 January 2017, http://russiancouncil.ru/en/inner/?id_4=8613

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