Monday, 16 June 2014

Russia's Turkish Option

According to some political commentators, there exists today a Moscow-Tehran-Damascus axis. The peddlers of this fanciful theory are typically Shiites with leftist inclinations or Western leftists enthralled by the anti-colonial oratory emanating from South Lebanon and Iran. It is conveniently forgotten that the Mullahs of Qom cooperated with the Israelis in order to neutralise Iraq's nuclear capabilities, that they were not averse to doing business with the Reagan administration qua Iran-Contras affair, or that they are currently begging the Americans to assist them in dealing with the menace of insurgency in Iraq.

Given the capricious nature not only of Iran but of nations at large, it is naive to assume that Russia's perceived commitment to a given nation is of a permanent nature. Russia pursues multiple and conflicting agendae in the Middle East, as the following four relations clearly demonstrate:

(A) Russo-Turk Relation: Turkey is the historical foe of Russia, but both parties have come to appreciate the fact that containment through friendship is preferable to mutual animosity. Turkey enjoys considerable leverage amongst the Turkic peoples of the former Soviet Union; rather than let Turkey exert a subversive influence on former member states of the Soviet Union, it makes ample sense to integrate Turkey into a larger Eurasian co-prosperity zone. Furthermore, Turkey is becoming increasingly alienated by its Western allies, and we have reached a point where Turkish intellectuals are openly advocating the severing of their country's ties with NATO. The inclusion of Turkey in the SCO will provide China and Russia with access to the Meditarranean, thus significantly altering the power balance between East and West as well as shortening the trading routes to Africa.

(B) Russo-Arab Relation: The Russian secret service is crammed with Arabists, and the reason for this is perfectly simple: what happens in the Arab world is likely to have repurcussions within Russia. For the West during Cold War, it was a matter of pushing the Arc of Islam deep into Russia, whereas for Russia it was a matter of diffusing the very possibility of the emergence of political Islam. The problem of fundamentalist Islam was not solely a product of American machinations in the region; the root cause was social in nature. As Michel Afleq, the great theorist of Baathism pointed out, the anti-colonial struggles in the Arab world were spearheaded by feudal lords, who in attaining liberation imposed political structures conducive to medieval obscurantism, whereas the authoritarianism of the Baathists was viewed as the Arab analogue of the Russian dicatorship of the proletariat. The recourse to ruthless measures was seen as a necessary evil: it would facilitate the development of a political culture that was secular to the core and it would do away with social relations that were feudal in nature. This was the logic that dictated the Soviet Union's support for nationalist regimes in the Middle East.

(C) Russo-Kurd Relation: The Kurds are something of an albatross around Russia's neck. This they have been ever since the communist Kurdish Republic of Mahabad was abandoned by Stalin in 1946 in accordance with the agreements reached at the Yalta Conference. Left on their own, the Kurds were an easy prey to the surrounding powers, and the Republic of Mahabad ceased to be. The attendant influx of Kurdish refugees into the Soviet Union led to the maintenance of the political ties between the two peoples. But for Russia in particular, the asssociation has always been an uneasy one, as it runs the risk of provoking those nations whose territorial integrity would be jeopardised by the Kurdish aspirations for national autnomy. For this reason, the Kurds are a liability rather than an asset.

(D) Russo-Iranian Relation: The perceived Russo-Iranian friendship has been imposed on Russia by history itself; it was never willed by Russia. The emergence of Iran as a regional power was viewed as an unfavourable development by Yevgeni Primakov. Furthermore, Iran and the Gulf states are the main agents of sectarianism in the Arab world. The Saudis with their pig-headed Salafism and the Iranians with their equally odious Shiism have eclipsed the secular forces in the Arab world and brought about an ideological polarisation. Furthermore, Press TV's constant designation of all Sunnis as 'Takfiris' is symptomatic of the sectarian mindset of the Iranians. The modus operandi of the Shiites is strikingly similiar to that of the Ahmadiyas, who deliberately defame the majority while presenting themselves as the forces of moderation partly with a view to winning new converts. This is proselytisation at its worst. Russia's relationship with Iran rests on purely pragmatic considerations, and too close an association with the sectarian Mullahs of Qom would only come at the cost of Arab ire. In other words: it is not worth it.

As can be seen from the foregoing, Russia has carved out paths for herself in the Middle East that do not all admit of being traversed to the very end: a relation that proceeds beyond mere diplomatic etiquette to the creation of an alliance will necessarily be to the detriment of another relation. Hence the relations A-C and B-D are both contradictories. For instance, the Kurdish demand for a separate homeland will inevitably impinge on the territorial integrity of Turkey. Thus far the Turks have shown considerable restraint, but beware the rage of the Turk.

Russia's choice in regard to these relations will ultimately be dictated by the circumstances, and insofar as conscious decision-making on Russia's part enters into the frame, it will have to rest on the law of large numbers: Turkish enmity is not worth the patronage of the Kurds, nor is alienation from the Sunni majority worth the accolades of the sectarian Mullahs of Qom.