Published 5-12-2012, 04:00
While it is bound to be risky to make sweeping statements about the Middle East, at least one thing appears certain. The main cause of the current turmoil in the region – poetically dubbed the "Arab Spring” – is the increasing economic hardship among the growing population, which contrasts with the luxurious lifestyle of the corrupt ruling elites. Among the other numerous causes are the long-standing religious fault-lines, the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, in recent years, the precarious regional power game as Israel and its Western allies try to contain Iran.
The ongoing bitter strife in Syria and the recent flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian tensions have prompted commentary suggesting that a new level of complexity has been reached. Take, for example, the spectacle of the US/West often being drawn into supporting – directly or indirectly – Islamist radicals (including possibly even Al-Qaeda): in almost any other context, the West opposes those very same radicals, while the latter consider the former their implacable enemy. Indeed, if there has been any clearly discernible trend in recent times, it has been the rise of the influence, above all in Egypt, of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is hardly a West-friendly movement.
From this perspective, the recent recognition of the Syrian National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SNCROF) by France, Britain and Turkey as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people (with the US and the EU also voicing their support for the Coalition) looks like a desperate attempt to "ride the tiger” that the West has helped unleash. The bitter truth, however, is that no external force can exert any meaningful influence on the region, least of all to pacify it. And support for the SNCROF is unlikely to yield a lasting pro-Western orientation of the post-Assad regime (if/whenever such a regime is installed) because it does not include all opposition forces.
Russia and China have been much maligned by Western governments and pundits for repeatedly vetoing the UN sanctions against Syria: they are seen as providing succour to a "bloodthirsty regime” that is massacring its own people. However, might it not be that these powers have actually been acting wisely, given the bewildering complexity of the background to the strife? Might they not understand that helping to stir the pot of "democratic change” not only does not guarantee more democracy and stability but intensifies pointless turmoil and bloodshed as one undemocratic regime is replaced by another?
If that is the case, the stance of Russia and China on the Middle East could be seen as less cynical, if not even more humane, than the "revolutionary” zeal of the West. Encoded into the Russian and Chinese "political DNA” is the bitter experience of communist revolutions, which devastated both countries’ economies, culture and social fabric. Their historical experience and desperate need to make up for lost time means they are more averse to instability than is the West. This is not to ignore the fact that China, unlike Russia, is increasingly more dependent on the supply of Middle East oil and thus has a vested (economic) interest in the region. However, China’s refusal to endorse acts that might only exacerbate tensions in the region is wholly in keeping with its professed adherence to "harmony” and "peaceful development”.
• Is it conceivable that the West’s position on the Middle East will ever converge with that of Russia and China?
• With the US forecast to continue to decrease its dependence on imported Middle Eastern oil and China expected to do the opposite, is it possible that China will "inherit" the Middle East problem?
The topic for the Discussion Panel is provided by Vlad Sobell, Expert Discussion Panel Editor (New York University, Prague)
Expert Panel Contributions
President American University in Moscow
Professor of World Politics, Moscow State University
A few days ago I was invited by a major think tank in Washington to participate in a discussion on the future of Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) after Obama's victory. Of special interest here was Obama famously whispering – with the mike still on – into then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's ear that a second term would give him "more flexibility” in negotiating with Moscow.
The Washington meeting was supposed to discuss the following questions: to where else would this new flexibility extend; how would Obama implement it, and where should he start? As it turned out, during the entire time allocated for these discussions neither the moderator nor the panelists nor the audience or call-in listeners mentioned missile defense or Russia even once. In fact the whole debate revolved around the Middle East.
Although such a deviation from the planned discussion topic seemed pretty odd at the time, it was on second thoughts quite understandable, given the current turmoil in the Middle East. So what exactly are we up against there now?
Gone are the ecstatic pronouncements about the "Arab Spring" democracy avalanche destined to bring long-awaited peace and prosperity to this part of the world. What we see in reality is murderous strife among religious, ethnic, sectarian, tribal, and other fanatical forces that no one is even remotely likely to be able to bring under control.
The West blames Russia and China, which are loath to see a repeat of the Libya scenario, for the continuous violence in Syria. But can that Libyan scenario be said to have been a brilliant success? At the time, both Russia and China kept their distance from the conflict there, and America and Europe had more or less a free hand to do what they felt necessary to stop the violence in Libya.
Well, what we see there now is a government that is much weaker than the country's militias, which are running the show and feel free to kill anyone they do not like with impunity. According to The New York Times, "Justice itself is a dangerous notion throughout Libya, where a feeble government lacks the power to protect citizens or to confront criminal suspects. It barely has the means to arm its police force, let alone rein in or integrate the militias or confront former rebel fighters suspected of killings."
Suppose Russia and China abstain next time during the Security Council vote on Syria, as they did on Libya. Will it bring peace and stability to that country? Is there any stability now in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan? What about Egypt? Are America's huge investments in these countries paying off? Thousands of killed and wounded US military personnel and trillions of dollars spent, and all for what? Is any of these countries at least grateful to America for its sacrifices? Why then are Afghan military – often US- and NATO-trained, by the way – shooting our men in the back?
Right now US senators are urging the Pentagon to cancel the purchase of Russian helicopters for American troops in Afghanistan because Moscow is selling weapons to Syria, in fulfilment of old contracts. It transpires, however, that it is Iraq that is allowing arms shipments from Iran through to President Bashar al-Assad! Again, according to The New York Times, "the air corridor over Iraq has emerged as a main supply route for weapons, including rockets, antitank missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars." All attempts by the Obama administration to persuade the Iraqis not to permit such a supply route have been largely unsuccessful.
It ought to be recalled at this point that under Saddam Hussein, Iraq was a balancing factor against Iran's Ayatollahs. It is hardly a secret that now many in Iraq's Shiite-dominated government are in fact sympathetic to Iran and to the Iranian efforts in Syria. Glory be to George W. Bush and his "strategic vision” that has led to such an outstanding result!
Another shocking story comes from certain classified sources: weapons sent by the West to Syrian rebels via Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other Gulf States are going straight to the hands of hard-line Islamic terrorist groups fighting alongside rebel forces in that country.
Examples of failed American and, generally, Western, policies in that part of the world abound. And yet we have not seen any sound proposals for extricating the United States from this quagmire. All we do see are these less than intelligent attempts to shift the blame for the mess on to Russia and China. What Obama should do instead is ask Moscow and Beijing for help in finding a compromise solution that would stop the bloodshed and force all sides of the conflict to sit down at the negotiation table.
Professor of International Relations & Political Science
San Francisco State University
Russia's approach to the Middle East is based on a worldview that is fundamentally different from the one shared by West. The currently dominant discourse in Russia is that of a culture that incorporates both Western and Eastern influences while preserving its own distinctiveness. As supporters of the so-called civilizational approach insist on protecting Russia's distinct values, the foreign policy debate is increasingly framed in cultural categories.
The Kremlin has identified two prominent threats to its vision of Russia as a civilization at the intersection of the Western and Islamic worlds. The first of these threats is radicalized and militant Islam. Russian analysts and politicians often speak of special relations with Muslims but differentiate between moderate and radical Islamists. President Vladimir Putin has expressed his respect for traditional Islam, saying that it is integral to Russia's religious, cultural and social fabric. Putin has also made a point of separating moderate Islam from "all forms of religious intolerance and extremism."
Russia's fear of militant Islam has domestic roots. The growing influence of Islamist ideologies, rising immigration from Muslim-dominated former Soviet republics and desolation in the North Caucasus have created a dangerous environment. Previously contained in Chechnya, Islamist terrorism has spread to Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and North Ossetia. On August 29, a female suicide bomber killed a leading moderate Muslim cleric in Dagestan, Sheik Said Atsayev, who had been negotiating with radical Islamists.
The second threats to Russia's cultural perspective comes from a radical, ethnocentric trend within the Western civilization. This school of thought seeks to present the West's values as superior to those of the rest of the world and justify the legitimacy of hegemonic and military actions toward others. Since NATO bombed Yugoslavia, the Kremlin has treated the West's tendency to use force for solving global crises as a threat to the world's stability. Russia supported the United States in its war with terrorism after 9/11 but advocated a measured response within the United Nations' jurisdiction. The Kremlin supported the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan but not in Iraq.
From Russia's point of view, what began as a counter-terrorism operation in Afghanistan with relatively broad international support turned into a "war of civilizations," or a U.S. crusade against Muslims. Instead of engaging moderate Muslims, U.S. policies tended to isolate them, which played into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists. As a result, Westernist and Islamist trends collided and spread violence and instability across the world. This explains Russia's fear of regime change in the Middle East, which the Kremlin sees as the recipe for radicalizing global Islam.
In attempting to restrain the Westernist trend, the Kremlin has reached out to the outside world by arguing against a military intervention in Syria and making a case for negotiations between Syrian leader Bashar Assad and the country's rebel forces. After the West demonstrated tendency to rely on force from Yugoslavia to Libya, the Kremlin sees Westernism as the dominant trend in Western capitals. This is why Russia, acting jointly with China, vetoed the US-sponsored UN Security Council resolutions regarding Syria. As the West presses Russia on Assad's departure, Moscow believes that this will only destabilize the region.
In addressing militant Islamism, Russia has tried to strengthen those whom it perceived as moderate political forces in the Middle East. Russia's willingness to engage Iran, Hamas and Syria was an attempt to compensate for the West's blunders, such as calls to boycott elections in Iran or attempts to pressure Palestinian voters or support Syrian rebels.
The Russian emphasis on negotiations did not result in a peaceful settlement in Yugoslavia, Egypt or Libya. The civil war in Syria, too, may have gone too far to enable an effective peaceful solution to be found. Still, despite difficulties and risks involved, there is hardly an alternative to dialogue and negotiations. Regime change by itself does not bring peace, as Iraq and Libya teach us. In many cases, it only intensifies violence and instability. Attempts to overthrow Assad's regime by supporting the opposition are proving counterproductive.
If outside powers continue on the path of partisan support for conflicting parties, the Syrian crisis will turn into a proxy war of leading powers. Syria will then become the first casualty of the new multipolar world order, and others may follow.
This article originally appeared in The Moscow Times, 28 October 2012
Visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Russia and Eurasia Program,
Washington, DC, PhD in History
The geopolitical importance of the Middle East has increased tremendously over the last two years. Russia's approach to the region has been fundamentally different from that of the West. Moscow does not share the latter’s enthusiasm for instant democratization of the Middle East and has not supported international intervention meant to "improve” the social and political order there.
In Russia the "Middle East issue” is three-dimensional. Its first two dimensions are well known. First, Russia, like China, continues to be in a long-running dispute with the West over the relationship between sovereignty and intervention in the domestic political process. That controversy has not been sparked by the Libyan or Syrian crisis. Rather, it dates back to the ethnic conflicts in the Balkans in the early 1990s. Second, Moscow has economic and geopolitical interests in the Middle East as a whole and in Syria in particular, ranging from business contracts to Russia’s only naval base on the Mediterranean Sea (in Tartus).
The third dimension of Russia’s approach to the Middle East is related to the situation in the North Caucasus, the most problematic region of the country. There has never been a common position in the Arab world on Russia's North Caucasus policy; and there is none now, given the diverse interests of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Syria and Qatar. Still, the support of many Arab states for Russia’s territorial integrity and their positions vis-à-vis Chechnya in 1994, 1999, and 2004 (during the Beslan tragedy) significantly helped Moscow. The North Caucasus has not become a "second Afghanistan,” with thousands of volunteers from the Arab countries flooding into the region to take on the Russian military. On the contrary, many Arab mercenaries intent on spreading "jihad” in the mountains of Chechnya and Dagestan were thwarted by persecution in their own homelands for what they were planning to do.
However, the Middle East world is not represented by justice-based state systems. Here we can talk about various social movements and political networks that are not connected directly with the state structures. The Al-Qaeda factor in Islamist activism in the Caucasus is a subject of special interest. On the one hand, its leaders did not proclaim the Caucasus as the "new battlefield of jihad” after Afghanistan and Iraq. On the other hand, the Caucasus has been in Al-Qaeda’s sphere of attention. Videocassettes detailing Caucasus terrorism activity were found both in Iraq and Afghanistan among Islamist fighters. Moreover, some Al-Qaeda representatives organized financial, ideological, and terrorist operations in Dagestan, Chechnya, and Kabardino-Balkaria. No one can guarantee that the opponents of al-Assad and the Alawites would replace the current dictatorship with a democratic system; moreover, growing radicalism has been recognized even by the Western special services.
In this context, Russia’s position is extremely cautious because it cannot ignore all above-mentioned facts. Above all, Moscow is acutely aware of the critical importance of the Caucasus for the country’s national security and political identity.
Former Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, teaches "Leadership in the 21st century” at various business-schools in Moscow
One cannot make sense of current events and politics in the Middle East and the role that the big powers play in them unless they are considered in a broad (historical, cultural and civilizational) context. Who are the aggressors and who are the victims? Who attacked whom? Who is allied with whom and why? What role does the oil and military-industrial oligarchy play? All these and other pieces of the puzzle cannot be made intelligible without resorting to the broad view.
Thanks to the scope of their intellectual grasp, Vlad Sobell and Ed Lozansky always provoke the panel participants into looking beyond parochial and transient interests and goals. Indeed, once you take the bird’s eye view, you realize how secondary or even tertiary are issues such as who is elected or reelected as president or prime minister, what would change if oil became irrelevant, or what happens if, say, Iranian pro-Western democrats overthrow the mullahs, or a nuclear accident eliminates the entire Iranian nuclear program. I venture to claim that if any piece of the puzzle changed in itself, the overall picture would remain pretty much the same. What then are the contours of the big picture?
The stance of Russia and China on the Middle East differs radically from that of the US because those countries are in different historical cycles. Both Russia and China are recovering from a century of horrendous destruction and suffering, foreign invasions and civil wars, humiliating poverty and backwardness. After a short (in historical terms) flirtation with global imperial ambitions of the Communist "manifest destiny,” both lack a "national idea” or ideology, which all global crusaders must have. They seem to have settled on the more traditional, pragmatic and attainable ambitions of economic growth and modernization. Accordingly, they are genuinely interested in peace and growing prosperity of their neighbourhood, which, they believe, can be better secured by a multipolar system of power.
Americans have a totally different view of the world. For them it looks remarkably similar to the situation in 1754-1763, when the Great American Project was launched. During the French and Indian War American troops helped the British to effectively expel the French empire from the continent. The war nearly bankrupted Britain and overstretched its resources. American elites then realized that they had the power and an unique opportunity to build their own empire. Washington was the first to speak about empire, while Jefferson coined the term "Empire of Liberty.” He wrote that Divine Providence destined the Western Hemisphere to "be peopled by one nation, speaking one language, possessing one general system of religious and political principles, and accustomed to one general tenor of social usages and customs,” committed to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
This became a pivotal moment in world history because it determined what civilization, cultural values, social and economic patterns would dominate the world for centuries to come. The "Empire of Liberty” proved to be an exceptionally successful project. All old and fledging empires – French, Spanish, British, German, Japanese and Communist – were defeated and removed from global scene. Until recently the "Empire of Liberty” ruled the New World Order unchallenged.
However, History did not end in the 1990s. The resurgence of China and Russia as major powers and the awakening of Islam have re-ignited "the war of cultures”. Looking at the current chaos in the Middle East, Americans see a familiar picture. Numerous "savage” tribes are fighting one another in constantly shifting alliances, proving once again that some people are incapable of statehood and self-government and need guidance and assistance. And, just like 250 years ago, Anglo-Protestant civilization is again challenged by different cultural models.
So can American policy on the Middle East converge with that of Russia and China? No, because the multipolarity that the Chinese and Russians are advocating implies the peaceful coexistence of different cultures, their cooperation and mutually beneficial cross-pollination and enrichment. Americans assume that the "American creed” has proved "the one and only” true model and that mixing it with another creed or creeds is tantamount to pollution and corruption. In fact, they point out that multiculturalism threatens America from within and suggest returning to Anglo-Protestant cultural roots. Indeed, evangelicals agree that if there is only one Almighty God, He must have only one chosen people and only one script of history. All the rest are heathens who should be condemned and fought as the Devil’s servants. Hence any compromise with them will be betrayal of God. This American delusion, writes Francis Jennings, is deadly , and I tend to agree with him.
 William Nester, The First Global War (Praeger, 2000).
 Richard Immerman, Empire for Liberty (Princeton U. Press, 2010).
 Francis Jennings, Empire of Fortune (Norton, 1988).
Patrick Armstrong Analysis,
Moscow’s objections to a NATO-led intervention in the civil war in Syria stand on three legs: principled, practical and personal. I suspect Beijing shares at least some of them.
The principled objections – which are what we hear most about – have to do with Moscow’s belief that the United Nations, for all its imperfections, provides a degree of international order and that the international principles of non-interference in internal activities and the inviolability of borders are important guides for international behaviour. The weakness of the principled argument, of course, is that a nation’s loudly-proclaimed principles vary according to its perceived national interest in each case. For example, in NATO’s Kosovo intervention in 1999, Moscow was strong on the principle of inviolability of borders while NATO spoke endlessly about the humanitarian imperative; each piously claimed the moral high ground. In the Ossetia war in 2008, these positions were exactly reversed while each continued to parade the moral superiority of its new principles. Principled objections, therefore, are selected according to self-interest. States make the arguments, they should not be completely ignored, but they are usually window-dressing for more deeply-felt objections.
Moscow’s practical objections ought to be clear from a consideration of the West’s previous "humanitarian interventions”. No one today ever mentions Somalia (1992) or Haiti (1994); the first being an utter disaster (it convinced Bin Laden of the "extent of your [the USA’s] impotence and weaknesses”) and the second ineffective. As to Kosovo (1999) we never heard about the KLA and organ harvesting at the time nor much else today about the people NATO put into power. The less said about today’s chaos in Libya (2011) the better. In short, the conclusions are – or ought to be – that none of these four "humanitarian interventions” bettered either human rights or stability. Moscow prefers less uncertainty in the world rather than more: it is very much a status quo power at the moment and it would like to avoid the chaos that another NATO-led "humanitarian intervention” would leave behind it.
Moscow’s personal objections are equally easy to understand. NATO has now overthrown Serbian power in Kosovo and Gaddafi’s rule in Libya; who’s next to be destabilized or overthrown? Russians see NATO expansion, all the fuss about Putin-the-monster which is the common stock of Western commentary and the rest and wonder whether there is an attempt to create or push a "coloured revolution” in Russia. (Not that the ones in Ukraine, Georgia or the Kyrgyz Republic turned out so well, come to think of it). Too many Russians see the West’s use of the word "democracy” as a geopolitical code for distinguishing between allies and targets. Another consideration is that every time the UN is bypassed Russia, as a member of the P5, is also bypassed.
So these three easily understandable objections are at the root of Moscow’s attempts to block NATO-led attempts to intervene in Syria,
And, given that the intervention in Kosovo took three and a half months and the overthrow of Gaddafi’s ramshackle regime about eight months, and that each involved much more effort and involvement than was light-heartedly assumed at the beginning, it is clear that a NATO-led effort to overthrow Assad would take a great deal of time and effort.
Perhaps Washington and its willing allies are secretly relieved that they can blame Moscow for preventing them from "resolving” the situation.
PhD economics, Ottawa
Below I consider the realignment of three international powers – the US, China, and Russia – around the Middle East conflict along the two vectors that Vlad Sobell mentions in his opening remarks: income inequality and the dynamics of global petroleum market.
Revolutions do not happen spontaneously. They start mainly as the reaction of desperate populations to unbearable poverty, but their chances of success depend on several circumstances. First, if uprisings are deemed to be "mutinies" by great foreign powers, they will necessarily fail because the entrenched regime will always have more firepower at its disposal than the revolutionaries. Second, when a significant part of the elite defects from the regime, it might deploy the revolutionary zeal to replace one dictator with another (assuming foreign powers do not wish to intervene directly).
The three external protagonists of the conflict – the US, China, and Russia – have income inequality of dimensions comparable to those of the Middle East countries. Judging from this factor alone, their ruling regimes should be largely sympathetic to the travails of their Middle Eastern brethren. This inference is consistent with observations that the "Arab Spring” is a home-grown phenomenon which foreign powers have reacted to rather than nurtured.
But here their paths diverge. All elites prepare for similar contingencies at home but their plans in the case of a revolution at home differ. In the Russian case, the elite plans to take off to the "alternative airfield”, that is the place where it has deposited its considerable fortune, namely, in the US and its allies. Thus, the fact that the US has turned against previously loyal but now disgraced dictators – like in Tunisia and Egypt (but not in Yemen and Bahrain) – introduces an additional element of uncertainty in the emergency plans of rich Russians. The Chinese elite seems to have spread its bet evenly as they keep their assets both in China and abroad. (Where the American elite plans to emigrate in case of potential upheaval at home is anybody’s guess.)
Predictably, Russia is more vocal than China in its opposition to what it considers to be "American misbehaviour”. However, my approach based on income inequality is not very useful in respect to "disloyal dictatorships” such as Libya and Syria. Both of these countries can, of course, be characterized as suffering from high-income inequality, which supports the argument of home-grown mutiny. But petroleum politics provides a much more convincing explanation of the reaction of external powers than does foreign empathy with their ruling classes. The issue at stake – the price of crude oil – is crucially important to two countries in bitter rivalry: the US and China. But a digression is necessary at this point.
Recall that in 2008 America plunged into the worst recession it has experienced since the 1930s, and it has only recently started to emerge from it. A persistent trade deficit was one of the main causes of the recession, driven principally by imports of oil. Thus, one of the main tasks for the US administration was to find ways to reduce the country’s dependence on petroleum imports. New technologies, such as horizontal drilling with fracturing, allow major expansion of petroleum extraction in North America, which is likely to make this continent energy self-sufficient before 2020. However, this technology is expensive and the Great American Tight Oil Revolution requires global prices to be in the range of $60-100 per barrel to succeed.
China, on the contrary, does not have this option and hence relies on the strategy of containing the costs of its growing petroleum imports. Direct foreign investment is one of its principal tools to achieve this objective. Because established oilfields are already owned by Western corporations, China is focusing on less secure locations such as Sudan, where it is ramping up conventional production for Chinese domestic consumption. Inevitably, global hubs like IntercontinentalExchange are registering lower Chinese demand, which is reflected in lower international oil prices set at these very hubs.
Russia’s attitude toward oil prices lies somewhere between that of the US and China. On the one hand, higher oil prices mean more revenue from petroleum exports, which account for about 40 percent of Russian federal budget revenues. On the other hand, high oil prices force Gazprom to accept non-oil based pricing for Europe-bound natural gas, which Gazprom vigorously opposes. Overall, however, the Russian position is closer to that of the US/West than that of China.
Judging from the oil factor alone, it would seem that the US and Russia may be more interested in continuous upheavals in the Middle East and that China is more eager to maintain the status quo. Taking this reasoning to its logical conclusion, would it not be reasonable to suggest that the first two countries are cooperating in a "bad cop-good cop” game of supporting the opposing sides in the Syrian conflict?
University Distinguished Professor of Political Science
Kansas State University
As long as the slaughter continues in Syria, I see very little chance of much change in the relationship. Russia is seen as a "supporter” of the Assad Government. The Chinese and Russia positions may be justifiable, but at this point it doesn’t matter. The West sees man with blood dripping from his hands, and China and Russia standing in the background supporting him with weapons, equipment and other material. Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov can say all he wants that Russia is not backing Assad, but few will believe it.
Vlad is right to point that the US may learn that it is supporting an Al-Qaeda splinter group, and that is the main reason why Washington is behind the French who have recognized the rebels as the legitimate government of Syria.
I don’t know what will happen with oil. However, with regard to China, its efforts to secure oil have been going on for some time. And I find it hard to believe that China will inherit the Middle East. The Chinese appear interested in only one thing – and that is oil. Getting involved in nation building is not something the Chinese will want to do. Of course, one can never predict the future, but having seen the problems have faced in recent years, I doubt that the Chinese will want to repeat our mistakes.