For the first time since before the colonial era, local actors make their own major decisions and traditional powers must adapt
By Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs, chairman of the Presidium of the Foreign and Defense Policy Council and research director of the Valdai International Discussion Club.
As the world’s attention focuses on Ukraine, the Middle East is once again bubbling beneath the surface. Nobody expected the processes to be frozen there, but their dynamics are changing. In fact, the direction of these adjustments has been noticeable for quite some time and it is becoming more and more evident.
The Middle East is increasingly becoming a space in which the course of events is determined by the interaction of regional actors, and the role of external forces, traditionally very important, has diminished in relative terms.
Historically, at least for a century and a half, it is the opposite. Outside powers – first the colonial powers of Western Europe, then the United States and the USSR – carried out various forms of expansion, during which they manipulated relations between themselves. The countries of the region have always denounced external interference, saying that it did not allow them to establish local balance and stability on their own. But at the same time, they also turned to the great powers themselves, involving them in achieving their goals. As a result, the Middle East has always been an arena of tangled interactions, which has guaranteed constant upheaval.
To say that this situation has radically changed would be premature. However, development trends in the Middle East follow (or perhaps catalyze) common global patterns. They are next.
The ability of large countries to pursue their own agenda diminishes, while the role of medium-sized countries increases comparatively.
In absolute terms, the great powers still have more potential, but in relative terms the gap is rapidly closing.
Turkey is at the center of the current revitalization of the Middle East. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has succeeded in making his country a key player in international processes; the Ukrainian crisis played into its hands in this sense.
This position allows Ankara to speak louder about its regional claims, regardless of its American bosses, let alone Western Europeans. One can only marvel at how skillfully Erdogan used an issue that had little to do with Turkey – the NATO membership of Sweden and Finland. Etc.
The Syrian issue in Turkish politics is a legacy of an earlier phase, when on the wave of the Arab Spring a decade ago, Ankara considered – former friend – Bashar Assad doomed and bet on his downfall and eventual disintegration of Syria. Events turned out differently, largely because of Moscow’s tough stance. Instead of the expected strategic spoils, Turkey now bears a burden on its shoulders: widespread destabilization along its borders and confrontation with Kurdish groups, bolstered by a combination of circumstances. The Syrian conflict has shaken the entire region, putting Iran at the forefront, which has alarmed the Gulf Arab monarchies.
In the past, it was up to the United States, the Western European states concerned and, in part, to Russia to settle the contradictions. Now, however, their ability is somehow limited. Moscow, of course, still holds the key position, but the priorities are now elsewhere, with all that that entails. The United States, since the end (one could 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 and has become absorbed in its own affairs. Again, outside forces have not been alienated from the game in this area, but their available resources of influence have diminished compared to earlier times.
It turns out that the course of events is now determined by the aspirations of the main countries of the region. Which change and evolve, just like the situation inside each of them. Iran, for example, is facing its most serious protests in years, with calls for transformation of the existing political and social system. As is often the case in such cases, the opposition movement is poorly organized but reflects the weariness of a large part of the population against the established order. The system is probably not threatened, but the mood cannot be dismissed, or at least it must be taken seriously. Iran’s position in the region, which has been strongly strengthened over the past decade, now depends above all on its ability to ensure internal stability.
It is impossible to predict what the possible transfer of initiative to regional actors will bring. Like great powers, medium-sized countries can make mistakes and make fatal mistakes; The history of the Middle East has demonstrated this time and again and will continue to do so. But one thing is worth noting: regional actors will now make their own decisions, whether they are right or not, based on their perceptions and abilities, rather than the interests of outsiders.
Iran’s stance on cooperation with Russia and the nuclear deal, Saudi Arabia’s stance on oil prices, and Turkey’s stance on virtually every issue are the product of their own assessment of the news and perspectives. And in this situation, the most effective tactic for outside forces is not to try to impose something, but to integrate their interests into the system created by local actors.
Fortunately, this is where Russia has performed well in recent years. The United States, on the other hand, has not yet learned this approach.