Does the Russia-Turkey deal on Idlib signal a new era of relations in the Middle East?

Oct 5 '18
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Sept. 17, 2018. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AFP/Getty Images)

For weeks, the world watched anxiously as Syrian government troops prepared a bloody offensive against the rebel stronghold of Idlib. At the last minute, however, Russia and Turkey — meeting in Iran — announced a deal to create a demilitarized zone in the area and demand that “extremist” rebels leave. With this deal accepted by the Syrian government and the opposition, it appears that the people of Idlib have been granted a reprieve.

While hardly a permanent solution, the deal highlights the shifting international relations of the region. Since the Arab Spring uprooted long-standing regimes, international order in the Middle East has been in constant flux. Does this deal between Russia and Turkey represent the new normal for the region: great-power management?

The evolving regional order of the Middle East

Russia and Turkey have played major roles in the Syrian civil war, jockeying for regional dominance in today’s “new Arab wars.” Russia supports the Syrian government, while Turkey backs some rebels and opposes Kurdish militants operating in Syria.

These struggles may mark a new era of relations in the region.

Since World War II, Arab states’ interactions established rules for regional order and dynamics of conflict. Negotiations among Arab states helped establish the League of Arab States as an important forum and solidified pan-Arabism to guide states’ behavior. Conflicts in the Middle East are not due just to clashing state interests but to shared “models of political survival.” Fragile states have justified their authority by appealing to shared pan-Arab beliefs and initiating crises in pursuit of these ideals.

And while the 1960s-era pan-Arab order brought leaders such as Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser to prominence, Middle Eastern publics remained under authoritarian rule and sluggish economic development. They suffered directly when pan-Arab aspirations contributed to the outbreak of a war between and Israel and Arab states in 1967, which the Arab states lost.

Later negotiations replaced pan-Arabism with conventional sovereignty as the norm. In the post-Cold War Middle East, ideological polarization between Islamists and secular forces prompted states to choose sides and drove their attempts to overthrow rivals’ regimes.

The nature of post-Arab Spring Middle East order is unclear. Are we seeing a struggle between predominantly Sunni and Shiite states? Or a division between revolutionary and counterrevolutionary forces?

The Idlib deal doesn’t fit any of these previous models. Sunni Turkey is generally supportive of revolutionary movements. Shiite Iran focuses on buttressing allies. Russia is backing its ally Syria against revolutionary movements.

The truce in Idlib could just be a deal balancing competing interests. But it may also represent a new model for regional order: great-power management.

‘Great-power’ management in the Middle East

In his classic “The Anarchical Society,” foundational international relations scholar Hedley Bull described great powers as those “recognized by others to have … certain special rights and duties.” Such states maintain order by “managing their relations with each other” and providing a “degree of central direction to the affairs of international society as a whole.” But great-power management is not just a set of policies; it is a “primary institution” in the international system, an agreed-upon set of rules and norms that provide order in anarchy. While Bull focused on Western Europe, others have translated these ideas to the Middle East.

The Idlib deal could be a case of great-power management. Russia has been working to expand its influence in the Middle East. And as I discuss in my book, Turkey has increasingly asserted its regional power as its traditional secularist forces fade under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Both states seem to view themselves as great powers with special roles to play in Middle East politics.

And the Idlib deal not only resolves conflict in Syria, but it also establishes guidelines for the numerous states involved. Russia, Turkey and Iran have gotten together and decided on the rules for regional states to follow.

Other crises that appear to involve sectarian or revolutionary/conservative divisions may actually be failed attempts at great-power management. Notably, the “blockade” of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other states seems like conservative states checking Qatar’s revolutionary leanings. But it is also a case of Saudi Arabia and the UAE trying to establish a set of rules. In fact, the demands they issued ­— specifying how Qatar should change its behavior — seem very much intended to provide a “degree of central direction” to regional states’ interactions. The Saudi and UAE intervention in Yemen’s civil war, a humanitarian catastrophe, has become a proxy war with Iran reflecting sectarian divisions. However, the official Saudi justification for its intervention was to restore the internationally recognized Hadi government in Yemen. Thus, even this sectarian struggle included elements of regional great powers directing the affairs of other states.

Additionally, recent studies on Morocco and Jordan suggest that these states are similarly trying to craft roles for themselves in the regional order.

Great-power management may thus extend beyond Turkish and Russian cooperation as an increasingly accepted means of resolving regional crises. Instead of advancing the interests of sectarian or ideological allies, powerful states in the region may cooperate across these divisions to stabilize the region to suit their purposes.

New opportunities for regional stability? Depends for whom.

The potential spread of great-power management provides opportunities for a specific kind of regional stability. Not every development in the region is part of a zero-sum competition between Iran and Sunni states. Sometimes — as with Idlib — states are attempting to craft guidelines to structure regional relations, albeit guidelines that benefit those crafting them.

If states view crises as opportunities for great-power management, compromise may be more likely, as in Idlib.

However, “stability” here refers only to harmony among states. The rules that regional great powers craft as part of their management of the Middle East will not necessarily be in the best interests of the people within those states. The current model of great-power management may help stabilize Syria, but it will not necessarily improve the welfare of its people on the ground.

Peter S. Henne is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Vermont. You can follow him @pehenne