A “Russian-Chinese axis” will dominate the Middle East with Israel as its western anchor: That scenario was floated June 15 in Russia Insider, a louche propaganda site that often runs the work of fringe conspiracy theorists and the occasional anti-Semite. But the author in this case was the venerable Giancarlo Elia Valori, president of Huawei Technologies’ Italian division, a veteran of past intelligence wars with a resume that reads like a Robert Ludlum novel.
Writes Prof. Valori:
A Russian/Israeli axis could redesign the Middle East. Currently the main powers have neither father nor mother, and the replacement of the great powers by Iran and Saudi Arabia will not last long because they are too small to be able to create far-reaching strategic correlations. Hence the time has come for the Middle East to be anchored to a global power, the Russian-Chinese axis, with Israel acting as a regional counterweight.
I would be tempted to dismiss Valori’s thesis as pulp fiction, except that I also raised the prospect of a “Pax Sinica” in the Middle East, three years ago in this publication.
Israeli-Russian relations, to be sure, are quite good. Deft military cooperation avoided problems between Russian forces in Syria and the Israeli army. Israel tolerated the occasional Russian overflight in its territory and Russia tolerated the occasional Israeli raid on Russia’s local allies, Iran and Iran’s cat’s paw Hezbollah. There even has been some speculation by Israeli officials that Russia might use its United Nations Security Council veto against the French-led proposal to impose a Palestinian State.
Tactical cooperation between Russia and Israel, though, is beside the point: Where do Russian (and Chinese) long-range interests coincide with Israeli interests? Prof. Valori writes of a redesign of the Middle East, and that is not as far-fetched as it sounds.
The century-old design of the Middle East, namely the Sykes-Picot agreement, is broken; America broke it by imposing majority (that is, Shia) rule in Iraq in 2007. The Middle East requires a new design. Sykes-Picot, as I explained in this space, set minorities to govern majorities: A Sunni minority in Shia-majority Iraq and a Shia (Alawite) minority in Sunni-majority Syria. That created a natural balance of power: Syrian Christians supported the Alawites and Iraqi Christians supported Saddam Hussein. The oppressed majority knew however nasty the minority regime might be, it could not undertake to kill them all.
The moment that the Americans put the Shia in power in 2007, the Sunnis concluded that they must fight to the death or be exterminated. The United States occupation under Gen. Petraeus tried to co-opt the Sunnis through the “Sunni Awakening,” and succeeded only in arming and funding the Sunnis for the inevitable war to come. This broke out in 2011 and will continue indefinitely. The remnants of the Bush Administration still claim that the 2007-2008 “surge” achieved a military victory that the Obama Administration threw away. In other words, what Bush and his advisors still consider their greatest accomplishment was the cause of today’s devastation.
The artificial nation-states created by the British and French imperialists cannot be restored, and their ruins are a cockpit for perpetual civil as well as global terrorism. There is only one alternative to the Sykes-Picot system of states, and that is the devolution of the Middle East on the model of the former Yugoslavia, into ethnic and confessional enclaves that separate the warring parties. The Yugoslav solution required extensive population exchanges; it was messy and costly but better than the alternative. A similar solution in the Middle East would be even messier, but better than what we have now.
An independent Kurdistan would be the model for all such enclaves: the Kurds have a thirty-year history of de facto self-governance in northern Iraq, reliable ground forces, buoyant demographics, and the political will to emerge as a nation. It is no exaggeration to say that the future of the Middle East pivots on the fortunes of the Kurds, the paragon and exemplar of what a small Muslim people can accomplish in the face of the crumbling state structures around them.
Israel and Russia, coincidentally, are the only two powers now supporting Kurdish independence, Israel explicitly and Russia somewhat more cautiously. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared in a January 2014 speech that Israel “should support the Kurdish aspiration for independence,” praising the Kurds as “a nation of fighters [who] have proved political commitment and are worthy of independence”. Netanyahu’s support for the Kurds has been reiterated since then by other members of his cabinet.
Russia has expressed support for Kurdish independence through lower-level officials, for example its consul in the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. This is by no means straightforward. As Paul Saunders, a former advisor to the George W. Bush State Department, explained in a May commentary in AI-Monitor, Russia has backed Kurdish aspirations when it suited its own interests, and its recent expressions of support for the Kurds followed the crisis in Russian-Turkish relations after Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter plane.
Russia has many reasons to keep the Kurds at arm’s length—the fact that they are fighting Russia’s client Assad in Syria and might come to blows with the Baghdad government—but it has one overarching reason to support them: Syria cannot be stabilized without a division into ethnic and religious enclaves, and Russia wants to stabilize Syria.
That is what most worries Iran. Russia’s state monopoly Gazprom has offered to develop Israel’s extensive natural gas resources, and some pro-Iranian commentators worry that Russia has “sold out Iran” for Israeli natural gas. That is beside the point: Iran worries that Russia will sell out its interest in Syria by cutting a deal with the United States over a de facto division of the country, as Abbas Qaidaari wrote in AL-Monitor June 10. Qaidaari observes, “The divergence between Tehran and Moscow’s geostrategic objectives in Syria, considering the price that each side needs to pay, is too wide for them to be able to reach a comprehensive and long-term agreement on collaboration. Moscow’s biggest objective is to maintain a dependent government in Damascus and to keep access to port cities in the eastern Mediterranean for its naval fleet. Iran needs Syria and access to its southern regions to maintain its support for Lebanese Hezbollah. It is natural that if Russia achieves its goals, it would see no reason to maintain the status quo, and this is exactly what has concerned Iran ever since this game began.”
Russia has two interests in Syria. The first is to keep Assad in power at least in some portion of Syria. The second is to suppress the Sunni jihadists who dominate the opposition to Assad. Between 2,000 and 5,000 Russian Muslims presently are fighting for al-Qaeda or ISIS in Syria. The spread of jihad cross the Black Sea to the Caucasus is Russia’s greatest fear.
If Israel and Russia stand godfather to an independent Kurdistan, they might indeed reshape the Middle East, as Prof. Valori suggested in his provocative essay. America, by contrast, is paralyzed. A Kurdish state in Syria and Iraq would be joined inevitably by the Kurdish-majority regions of Southeastern Turkey. America cannot condone a threat to the territorial integrity of a NATO member. In practice, of course, Washington could do so. The right way to do it would be to encourage the Turks to conduct a referendum on Kurdish independence on the model of the Saarland Referendum of 1955 (and do the same for the disputed regions of Ukraine as well).
But Turkey never will agree to such a reasonable solution, and Washington never will propose it. The American foreign policy establishment is a football team trying to win a game while the stadium burns down around them. There are 51 diplomats at the State Department who still believe that American can incubate a moderate Sunni opposition in Syria to oppose the Assad regime.
Demographics is not destiny (a banal dictum attributed to the French positivist Auguste Comte). As Heraclitus said, character is destiny, and Turkey’s character is the problem. The Kurds have twice as many children as ethnic Turks, so many that in one generation half of Turkey’s military age men will speak Kurdish as a first language. Turkey today is wrestling with its destiny. Its fate is sealed: it will become a minor Mediterranean power, a sort of second-rate Spain or Italy, with a declining workforce, a weak currency, and a reputation for political turmoil. But it has a choice to make concerning its national character. Turkey could accept and adapt to the mediocrity of its circumstances and live with its neighbors in peace and a modest degree of prosperity, or it could rage against its fate and fail in grand style. Sadly, the choice seems inevitable, and wrong. It will flair and flounder in pursuit of an unattainable national grandeur, and its neighbors will have to sort it out.
Iran remains Israel’s main strategic concern. It failed to dissuade the United States from concluding a nuclear deal with Iran that empowers Iran, in Jerusalem’s view. Russia and China could constrain Iran’s military ambitions, and Israel in the future might look to Moscow and Beijing for help in this regard.
Unlike Russia, China has every reason to avoid direct involvement in the region: It lacks the regional knowledge that Russia gained during three centuries of war with the Turks, it does not have the military capacity for expeditionary forces on the ground, and it lacks the diplomatic and intelligence capabilities to deal with the complexities of local politics. As the dominant economic power on the Eurasian continent, though, China has the means to uplift the economies of the region. As Prof. Valori writes, “Israel, jointly with the Russian Federation, will be able to project globally. In the future, there will be a place for Israel in the Chinese One-Belt, One-Road Initiative in Central Asia, in India, even in Latin America and in some African areas.”
China’s economic vision for the Eurasian continent is a long-range affair and still rather abstract. More pressing are Chinese concerns about the spread of Islamist terrorism into Asia. As Christina Lin reported in Asia Times June 15, the Syrian civil war has become a magnet for South and Southeast Asian Muslims, many of them already radicalized by Saudi-financed religious schools in their region.
China already has its hands full with Uyghur terrorists in its Muslim-majority Western province of Xinjiang. A “southern route” through Thailand and Myanmar channels Uyghur terrorists in Southeast Asia. If the Uyghurs were to link up with home-grown jihadists in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, Chinese security officials fear, the security problem might metastasize.
This confluence of interests makes possible a Pax Sinica in the Middle East. It would not be conceivable if American policy were not so utterly misguided.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.