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September 18, 2020

On the Eastern Question 2.0 (I)

Nobody can deny the fact that today’s most pressing international crisis is in the Mideast as a whole, a significant part of the wider geopolitical area that American strategists call the Greater Middle East, a huge territory stretching from Africa’s western coasts, through the continent’s northern part, through the Gulf, all the way to the borders of India and China. It is the most pressing crisis because not only the powers that have the planet’s most significant nuclear arsenals (U.S. and Russia) are involved in the Mideast, and fortunately they are, at least temporarily, cooperating here. But also because the ongoing violence taking place here has a considerable impact on the surrounding regions, generating high indexes of insecurity at global level. Let us pay heed, from this standpoint, not only to what is happening in Syria, but also to the pincer in which Turkey is squeezed, to the refugee crisis in Europe and its influence on European solidarity, to the nuclear agreement with Iran and to the recent missile launches carried out by the Iranian regime during the Persian New Year.

Of course, there are other flashpoints on the planet, and one of the most important of them is in the South China Sea, where worrying developments are taking place on a daily basis; another one is located on the Korean Peninsula, where the communist North Korean regime has a provocative timetable of medium and long-range missile launches, which generate not only worries but also natural countermeasures. The latter are prompting escalations from several actors interested in security in North-East Asia, each of them guided by their own interests, a vast region of contradictions thus taking shape.

Apart from all these points, the Mideast, namely the evolution of the multiple crises here – in Syria, Yemen, Sinai, the Iranian nuclear file, etc. –, by involving the massive Russia-U.S. file and the security of Europe as a whole, undeniably currently remains the most visible and dangerous strategic region through its complexity and high degree of unpredictability in developments.

Basically, what is happening today in the Middle East represents, on the plane of history’s “long duration,” a new edition of the old “Eastern Question.” Those who have a passion for historical comparisons cannot avoid the intellectual exercise of comparing the old stage of the Eastern Question to what is happening today in this region that is so volatile from the standpoint of international security. First, we are talking about the location. During the first edition of the Eastern Question, a good part of today’s Mideast was occupied by the empire of the Sultans, whose possessions stretched from North Africa, where Egypt was a privileged province, all the way to the Gulf, where it bordered on Persia, and also included the wide hinterland of the Black Sea, hence from the Caucasus and the steppe to the north of the Black Sea to the Balkans and the Adriatic Sea. As known, Eastern Question 1.0 started with Russia’s strategic advance toward the Mediterranean Sea at the start of the 18th Century, the objective sought being the conquest of Constantinople/Istanbul and the resumption of Byzantium’s historical inheritance. Simultaneously with the empire of the Czars’ uninterrupted move toward the South, toward the Mediterranean, another empire, the Central European empire of the Habsburgs, also started a wide-scale advance toward the South, toward the Balkans. The essence of this first edition of the Eastern Question, which we hereby dub “1.0” in the digital era style, was the adjudication of the inheritance of the Ottoman Empire, who had become the “sick man” of Europe. For two hundred years, this first edition of the Eastern Question meant successive wars between Russia – and Austria alike – and the Ottoman Empire, up to the First World War when the Sultans’ empire collapsed. Simultaneously however, Russia – fallen under Bolshevik regime and engaged in the grandiose project of a global ideological revolution – put an end to the Czars’ empire, but not to its own strategic designs, and the Habsburg Empire collapsed too.

The second, contemporary phase of the eastern question – Eastern Question 2.0 – started relatively recently – if we overlook the Cold War superpowers’ giant confrontation in the region for almost 50 years –, basically with the “Arab Spring.” Namely in 2010-2011. Some experts place this start even earlier, in the 1990s, when terrorism – never absent from the region – took on high levels of religious radicalisation and the arguments of traditional jihad. What has been taking place in the region ever since, ranging from the Sunni insurrection in post-2003 Iraq to the recent clash in Nagorno-Karabakh which basically pits Armenia and Azerbaijan against each other, is bearing historical resemblance to Eastern Question 1.0. The clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh erupted unexpectedly in early April 2016, as part of a conflict “frozen” for well over 20 years, but not without a link – suspected rather than obvious – with the conflict-prone file recently developed between Russia and Turkey against the backdrop of an explosive Mideast. Just like in the previous edition, which sealed the end of the Sultans’ empire, the current Eastern Question 2.0 is developing not only in the same space, but also in line with historically verified paradigms. We are not talking solely about the fact that the current edition is rooted in the previous one – although more than a century separates them – but also about the fact that the restoration of old historical paradigms is being attempted. Thus, the resurrection of the Sunni “Islamic Caliphate” brings back into present day a long historical file – over 700 years old – closed in 1924 when the Parliament of the Republic of Turkey, founded by Kemal Attaturk, officially abolished it. When Islamic radicals proclaim the death of the “Sykes-Picot Agreement” (1916), the reference is to the territorial division of the Mideast during the First World War and includes a promise of inclusive political restoration of the geographical space beyond the secret agreements of the European great powers of a century ago. The similarities continue with the resumption of the older enmities, centuries old in their own turn, their roots going back deep into the Middle Ages.

The Russia-Turkey conflict is but one of these historical enmities, but there were also – to name just a few – the Sunni-Shia conflict, the conflict between Turkey and Iran, between Arabs and non-Arabs in various states, between Christians and Muslims, between the latter and Judaism or Zoroastrianism, between Armenians and Turks, so on and so forth. Today’s axes of conflict are gradually restoring the old ones, going beyond current political boundaries the conflict files are organized in a cross-border manner – in Syria the Alawite side, an offshoot of Shiism, is backed by Iran and the Shia Lebanese Hezbollah. In Yemen, the rebels and government forces find allies in Sunni states or in Iran. In the so-called “Islamic Caliphate,” Christians are subjected to the same religious obedience tests of yore or to beheading when they fail to pass them.

Just like during the previous edition of the Eastern Question, today the global religious forums mobilise and promise to ally in order to defend their fellow faithful in the Mideast, just like Pope Francis and the Patriarch of Moscow did during their recent meeting in Cuba, the West does not hesitate to send their fleet in the Straits or in the Aegean Sea in order to give the message that it will not allow the Mideast to be dominated by a great power to its exclusion. Moreover, Turkey, which during the previous edition of the Mideast file was backed by the West based on reasons related to the continental balance of power, finds herself in the same position today. Moreover, the West is ready to give her the legitimate paperwork of membership in the Western civilisation (the EU’s promise to accelerate Ankara’s accession being expressly stipulated in the agreement reached in March this year). And Russia has returned in force to the region from which it had been excluded in 1973, actively intervening against anti-government forces in Syria but also against the “Islamic Caliphate.” Just like in the previous edition, the vicinity of Jerusalem, the headquarters of the three Abrahamic religions, is fuelling the conflict, exaggerating its importance and inducing the outlook of unending violence.

In Eastern Question 2.0, Syria and the developments there now occupy a central place. Recently, just the other days, developments related to Syria were registered, developments that are worth analysing since they will have an impact in the future. We are talking about legislative elections in Syria and most of the experts’ opinion on the need for a peacekeeping mission to Syria, under UN or NATO aegis, in order to put an end to the violence and to rebuild the country after five years of devastating civil war.

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