Arabs can play leading role despite the return of empires
There was a time when problems could be resolved by consultations between local and regional actors. Not anymore. Instead of trying to resolve Syria with talks between Syrians, consultations between the capitals of old empires like Moscow, Istanbul and Tehran are more likely to yield results, while regional actors also have less say in the matter.
In the 1980s, American envoys like Philip Habib and Richard Murphy would have shuttled between local actors in Lebanon to find a consensus among them. They also occasionally consulted with a few regional players, which mostly pretended not to have a say. This was the case during the Cold War, when the superpower rivalry was ever-present, but they still only occasionally had to directly intervene.
The 20th century began with the collapse of empires in the First World War and the rise of what later became the superpowers fighting for influence over the remnants of these empires. A hundred years later, this is reversed. We are seeing a pattern of Turkey, Russia and Iran aspiring to and behaving like the empires they once were.
Are we witnessing the rise of a new order of old empires emerging and competing to define their spheres of influence in the Arabian Peninsula? They are cooperating to speed up the departure of the already-waning American power in the region and to fill the vacuum that will ensue.
Vladimir Putin is seen as a 21st-century czar, the most powerful Russian leader since Joseph Stalin. Under him, Russia is behaving like its old empire, which has been felt in Europe, in the Caucasus and in the Middle East. Arab leaders flock to Moscow to curry favor. Russia has a say in most conflicts of the region, sometimes in rivalry with Turkey, such as in Syria and Libya, and sometimes in cooperation with it, like in Iraq and Armenia.
Ali Khamenei’s Iran seeks to control the region through its influence over the Shiite populations thanks to its proxy militias under the umbrella of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. It has gained power by collapsing state institutions and replacing them in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. It also has the potential to threaten the Gulf with its ballistic missiles. Its competition with Turkey is reminiscent of the old Safavid-Ottoman rivalry and is mostly over the same geographical areas.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) emerged in 2001 in opposition to the Kemalist movement. For most of the 20th century, Kemalist Turkey turned its back on its Ottoman past and looked west toward Europe. A revival of interest in Ottoman culture and its eastern-looking Islamic nature accompanied the rise of the AKP and its foreign policy, which began by aiming for zero problems with its neighbors. It has been described as neo-Ottoman, looking east and renewing relations with old imperial provinces. It thus overlaps with Iranian and Russian ambitions, with their rivalries now reflected in most regional conflicts.
The emerging empires project power abroad and use this phenomenon to strengthen their regimes through imperial and nationalist pride. However, all three leaders are also facing mounting internal opposition and revolts and may implode from within.
Iran is facing opposition to the regime from its own population, as well as in Iraq and Lebanon, over whose Shiite populations it is trying to exercise control. The regime’s narrative of perpetual war through the Axis of Resistance is less appealing to the younger generation and does not fit with their aspirations.
Erdogan is also facing growing protests, especially after he tightened control following an attempted coup in 2016 and clamped down on journalists, academics and intellectuals.
Protests against Putin in Russia are also on the rise, especially after the attempted assassination and imprisonment of the opposition politician Alexei Navalny.
When Putin, Erdogan and Rouhani meet in Astana to discuss the future of Syria, their minds are as much focused on home as they are on foreign policy. The two are certainly connected: Making their countries or empires great again can help with their domestic problems, with their economies in shambles and amid rising opposition to their regimes.
It is also significant that the US is not present at the table. It has chosen to focus on fighting Daesh, even when Daesh is no longer really there, and to ignore the rest of the region. US disengagement is a security concern for its allies in the Middle East, whose protection depends on its power.
We are seeing a pattern of Turkey, Russia and Iran aspiring to and behaving like the empires they once were.
The Arab region has always been the subject of great rivalry among empires and it has had little say in the matter itself. It is possible, however, that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) may play a role in determining its own future by being instrumental in resolving other conflicts in the region.
Vali Nasr, in an important Foreign Policy article last month, claimed that the Arab moment has passed and that the future of the region will be determined by non-Arab states like Iran, Turkey and Israel. He has strong arguments, but the Arab states, especially those in the GCC, can still have agency by cooperating to resolve the conflicts of the region and pushing an agenda of peace as an alternative to that of the Axis of Resistance and the deals at the top between tyrants dreaming of empires.
Another landmark piece, written by Karim Sadjadpour and published by The Atlantic last month, concludes that “the light in Iran is a young, dynamic, educated society that aspires to live like South Koreans, not North Koreans — prosperously and at peace with the world.” This statement applies to the youth of the whole region, as well as those of Russia and Turkey, and from that perspective the future is brighter than it may seem.
- Nadim Shehadi is the executive director of the LAU Headquarters and Academic Center in New York and an Associate Fellow of Chatham House in London.