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There can be no single victor in the newly pragmatic Middle East order

Transactional relations reign supreme as smaller players attempt to carve a larger role for themselves

As the recent G20 summit illustrated, international relations in the Middle East have gone beyond unilateralism or bilateralism. They are instead characterised by pragmatism, which is seeing countries ally on certain issues while clashing on others, as transactional relations overtake firm coalitions.  

Traditional actors have significantly lost power as smaller ones attempt to carve a larger role for themselves. European states and organisations, such as the UK, France and the European Union, are no longer agenda-setters in their relationships with countries in the Middle East. 

Their reliance on - or attachment to - economic contracts with Gulf nations is deterring them from intervening in Gulf affairs, while their involvement in the Syrian conflict has mainly followed the direction of Washington. And with Brexit looming, power is likely to continue shifting away from the centrality of the West. 

Direct competition

This relative European retreat has paved the way for regional actors to play more of a leading role. Turkey, in particular, saw in the Syrian conflict an opportunity to increase its regional influence, putting it in direct competition with Saudi Arabia. 

Although neither country managed to sway the direction of the Syrian conflict towards its own interests, current international pressure on Saudi Arabia is giving Turkey a new opportunity. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s handling of the Jamal Khashoggi affair indicates that Turkey wants to claim Saudi Arabia’s leading position in the Sunni Islamic world. 

Turkey is looking towards a Middle East in which Iran is the prevalent Shia regional force and Turkey the prevalent Sunni one

Meanwhile, although Turkey has faced off against Iran in Syria through the opposing armed groups each respectively supports, Ankara’s pragmatism has prevailed in their bilateral relationship.

Khashoggi’s murder coincided with the reimposition of US sanctions on Iran. Turkey was one of the first counties to criticise the sanctions and to announce it would maintain economic relations with Iran. This indicates that Turkey is looking towards a Middle East in which Iran is the prevalent Shia regional force and Turkey the prevalent Sunni one.

But the increasingly hawkish US stance towards Iran will make this scenario difficult to realise. Washington appears to be trying to put enough financial pressure on Iran to force it to make political and military concessions in the Middle East - essentially, pushing Tehran towards becoming an economic and political liability to its own allies.

Pariah state

Russia is aware of this planned fate for Iran. Despite Moscow’s characterisation of Washington as steering the world towards a unilateral global order, and despite its actions in Ukraine indicating a deep mistrust of NATO, it is not in Russia’s interest to exist in a bilateral world with the US and NATO on one side, and Russia on the other, alongside China and Iran.

In the long run, such a situation would leave Russia stuck with one ally likely to swallow it economically, and another that is a pariah state. 

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Tehran on 7 September (
This concern suggests that the Russian-Iranian alliance in Syria is a pragmatic move on both countries’ behalf - one that serves their individual interests for the time being, but not in the long term. It also indicates that Russia is not as comfortable in Syria as it pretends to be. Moscow does not want the economic pressure on Iran to eventually burden Russia, nor does it want its military personnel to remain in Syria indefinitely. 

The US has an opportunity to use this Russian discomfort to seek a peace settlement in Syria, beginning with a process of bilateral talks. This would incentivise Russia to accept concessions in Syria in return for implicit acceptance of its global status.

Who will emerge as leader?

The US would also need to give Turkey some concessions in Syria to pave the way for a settlement guaranteeing Turkey’s national interests - namely, to appease Ankara’s concerns about the ascendance of Kurdish elements in Syria. Such backing would make the US stance towards Iran more palatable to Turkey. 

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But even if the US makes such bold moves vis-a-vis Russia and Turkey and ups its game with regards to Iran, this does not mean that any one country will emerge as a clear leader in the Middle East or the Islamic world. The days of aspiring towards unilateralism or bilateralism are over, and pragmatic moves will continue to define the dynamics of international relations in the Middle East.  

Lina Khatib is the head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House. You can follow her on Twitter @LinaKhatibUK. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Smoke rises in the southern countryside of Syria’s Idlib province after an airstrike on 7 September (AFP)

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