The country’s current strategy risks fuelling a sectarian warby Robert Fry / December 21, 2015 / Leave a comment
Speaking to the UN General Assembly in September, President Vladimir Putin laid out Russia’s position on Syria. It was a mistake, he claimed, to refuse co-operation with the Syrian Government. Assad was the only participant in the Syrian war with any democratic authority, Putin said, and was the best hope for defeating terrorism in the region, of which Islamic State (IS) was only one element. In making his case, he said that Russia had legitimate interests in this and other parts of its “near abroad” and that they would be pursued with vigour, even when they conflicted with Western policy. Putin’s strategic clarity of purpose was striking and took many observers by surprise—but the logic underpinning his analysis was not new. It was strikingly similar to the Tsarist foreign policy of the early twentieth century.
For a region with such ancient provenance, it is remarkable how the shape of the Middle East today owes so much to events of the early nineteenth century. The Ottoman Empire had provided unbroken rule of the region for 600 years. At its head was the conjoined role of sultan and caliph, the first embodying temporal leadership, the latter, religious. The sultanate could not survive defeat in the First World War and was abolished on 1 November 1922. The caliphate followed in March 1924 as part of the sweeping secular reforms instituted by Mustafa Kemal, first president of the Republic of Turkey and better known as Ataturk. This left vacant the post of spiritual head of Sunni Islam to which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of IS, is the latest pretender.
The fall of the empire was hastened by the Arab Revolt of 1916, led by the Sherif of Mecca and abetted by T E Lawrence (of Arabia), which marked the beginning of a sense of collective Arab identity and nascent nationalism. This was followed, and incalculably complicated, by the British Government’s Balfour Declaration of November 1917 and its commitment to the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”.
But if there is a single legacy that, in conventional wisdom, holds the key to the Middle East today…