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Crusade against the Integration of the Middle-East with the Caucasus and Central Asia

Thursday 19 July 2018, by Babak KHANDANI

The near-end of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) with the blessing of the US – at least in appearance – may provide the illusion that calm is returning to the region. However, this is not so.

Saudi Arabia’s $380 bln in military orders from the US are not merely a gift to the US. The Saudis intend to use these weapons, and the US will assist them. Only this plot can explain US President Donald Trump’s about-face regarding the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

For the US and its Arab allies, forgetting the defeats in Syria and Yemen is not possible.

Prof. Putin and his Eurasian Class
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Satrapia)

Nowadays the old expression “The Great Game” appears to be back in vogue when discussing the tensions with Russia. The Medias coined the term in the 19th century to describe the atmosphere of distrust and the constant threat of war between Britain and Russia, the two colonial empires at the time. The British’s goal of preventing Russia from becoming a superpower fuelled the conflict between the two countries over Afghanistan, Iran (Persia) and neighbouring territories in Central and Southern Asia. As a maritime power, Britain had little capacity to strike a vast and inaccessible continental territory. The major containment policy for Britain was thus to help Muslim khanates of Central Asia to rebel against the Tsar, gain independence and cut Russia’s land link with the Far East and the Pacific. Furthermore, the Zagros Mountains, stretching from northwest to southeast Iran, were to stay an insurmountable rampart barring Russia from accessing the Indian Ocean via the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman. Two centuries later, Russia appears to be the winner of The Great Game. The recent rapprochement between Turkey and Russia, the blockade imposed on Qatar and the diminution of the Islamic threat in Syria pave the way for the creation of a Russia-dominated economic zone positioned between China and Europe.

In reaction to this dominant position of Russia, United States plans to establish in the southern flank of the Zagros Mountains a war zone and power vacuum, setting up a continuous strip of instability ranging from Afghanistan to Iraq, i.e. from Central Asia and the borders of Muslim Xinjiang to the Syria of Bashar al-Assad where, in the latter case, they have for the moment to admit their defeat. This band will serve two purposes: on the one hand, it will create a buffer zone between Russia and the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean; on the other hand, it will make tracing a new Silk Road through Iran difficult.

The realization of such a project is not difficult and it will not take more than three years for Saudi Arabia and Egypt to prepare to launch a naval and air offensive against Iran. In this new version of the Gulf War, unlike what happened in the 1980s, the objective will no longer be soil occupation but only a maximum destruction so that urban guerrilla settles in the ruins of the cities. In the same spirit of the ISIS or the Taliban in Afghanistan, this no-go area will be a rear base for launching attacks against Iran, the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Chinese province of Xinjiang. In their umpteenth conflict between the Arabs and the Persians, the Anglo-Americans will provide an impenetrable shield, allowing Saudi Arabia to launch attacks against Iranian civilian and military targets with impunity.

Let us take a quick look at the region to better understand the main actors’ stakes and difficulties.

Eurasia

In its current extent, Russia is the continuation of the Golden Horde, itself distribution of Genghis Khan’s states among his descendants. For this reason, the Tsarist Empire and the subsequent USSR and modern Russia, stretching from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg, are in their very essence Turco-Mongol entities, even though “Whites” rule them. Prior to the Mongols’ rule, never had such a large span of land been under a single govern. Even Scythians were limited by the Altai Mountains and were much more in conflict with the Turco-Mongols than in alliance with them. The history of the USSR and its barbarism can be much more explained by its Genghis Khanid nature than by ideology.

For this reason, Russia is strongly Altaic. Thus, Eurasia’s scheme is unrealistic, and in the long run, ethnic Russians will face a serious identity dilemma.

Iran

One of Iran’s primary stakes of Iran is to become a major Eurasian transit node, connecting not only China to Europe through a modern Silk Road, but also acting as a gate to Central Asia and the Caucasus by linking them to the Indian Ocean. The future of this great project depends nevertheless on the stability of the current regime, which is confronted with the sacrosanct problem of generation change. The Islamic Republic of Iran’s current Supreme Guide, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was in his younger ages in the 70s a communist and active member of the pro-Soviet Tudeh Party. How he became a devout Muslim remains unclear, but his sympathy for Russia is obvious. He is not alone in this case in the Iranian Shiite clergy. Thus, more than mutual self-interest can explain the unholy alliance of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Russia since 1980, that is in an epoch when the latter was a communist country and by definition atheist and opposed to any religion, can be explained by more than mutual self-interest.

However, contrary to other Muslim countries and especially to the so-called “Arab street” where Vladimir Putin, despite his open islamophobia, is very popular, Russia does not have a positive reputation in Iran. The reason for this dates back to the Russo-Persian Wars of the beginning of the 19th century, when the Tsarist Empire seized Caucasus and parts of Central Asia. Most Iranians still dream of the return of Georgia, Armenia, Baku and other provinces, even though all of these former provinces are now independent and sovereign states!

Furthermore, unlike Central Asians and Caucasians, Iranians have little or no knowledge about Russian culture and, not lacking in contradictions, are very americanised, love the United States and hope to migrate to this country. The great unknown in Iran is the time “after” Ayatollah Khamenei, who is aging and has no credible successor. The question also arises of whether the supreme guide’s function will be preserved or simply abolished, thus transferring the real political power to the elected president. In the latter case, we will likely witness a major foreign policy shift in Iran in favour of the West. Armed forces (Pasdaran and the army) remain nevertheless extremely faithful to the alliance with Russia against United Sates. In the case of an upheaval after Khamenei’s death, it is not unlikely that a strong military man such as General Qasem Soleimani takes power via a coup as Reza Shah did in 1921.

Specifically, in 1921, the young victorious Red Army had pushed back the British expeditionary force from Baku and had landed in the Iranian Port of Anzali to establish a Bolshevik state in Persia, or at least in its northern provinces. Stalin was present in person at Rasht to organise the Iranian Marxist revolution. But Georgy Chicherin, the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs in the Soviet government, persuaded Lenin, as did ambassador Rothstein, to let down the Iranian Bolsheviks (the Jangali movement led by Kuchik Khan) and instead to support Reza Khan, arguing Persia to be too backward country for Marxism.

The same scenario is likely to be repeated following the death of the charismatic Supreme Guide. Some observers even believe that Moscow is anticipating such a possibility by taking special care of its favourite general, Soleimani.

Regardless of Iran’s future leader, it is almost certain he will try to use antagonist superpowers to minimise the dominance of each of them and to be master of its internal affairs. This has been the policy of all governments that have ruled Iran since the early 19th century.

Turkey

In its search to regain its past glory, Turkey has much to lose and not much to gain. The hopes of nibbling at Iraqi and Syrian territories are illusory. The only thing remaining for Erdogan is bargaining his armed services as now in Qatar. However, Turkish leaders’ vision is blurred and contradictory, as a viable state cannot rely solely on its economy or army. National identity based on a specific culture is necessary to gain people’s support.

Turkey is caught between two rather incompatible aspirations: on the one hand, restoring Ottoman Empire and therefore becoming the centre of the caliphate, and on the other hand, promoting Pan-Turkism. The third aspiration cherished by Ataturk, i.e. becoming European, seems to be now abandoned by Erdogan, preferring “to be the head of Asia rather than the ass of Europe”.

With regard to Istanbul as the capital of the Caliphate, Erdogan probably understood the absurdity of this dream in a modern world where Arabs overwhelm Turks in terms of wealth and population. Furthermore, the ethnology of Islam is today so diversified – from the Far East to Europe, including Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia and so on – that no country has the capacity to pretend to become the leader of the Islamic world. Even Saudi Arabia, as the holder of holy sites, such as the Kaaba, is unable to impose his authority. And with the centre of gravity of Islam shifting towards Black Africa, any caliphate project is completely unworkable. It remains Pan-Turkism, an idea invented in Europe in 19th century and embraced since then by a certain elites in the Ottoman Empire and later in Turkey. But the reality is that the Turkish-speaking countries of Caucasus and Central Asia do not wish to become provinces of a larger Turkey. Rather, each pretends to be the real depositary of the ancient Turco-Mongol empires, especially with Turkey’s inhabitants being a mixture of Byzantines, Iranians and Arabs and having little Altaic blood. Turkey is embraced for investment and commercial purposes but for no more.

Qatar

The rapprochement between Qatar and Iran, and de facto Russia is understandable. The House of Thani has much more to fear from Saudis, who want to “digest” them, than from Iranians, who at most seek to ally with them. However, Qatar will have to pay a heavy toll for its betrayal.

The very first victim of the future war between the Arabs and the Persians will be Qatar, which Saudis consider to be due to them by right. Anglo-Americans seem to have conceded to Saudis the fall of the Qatari state in return for a war against Iran. Europe, and particularly France, very committed to Qatar and its reigning family is embarrassed but has no choice but to follow the Americans as it did in 1991 with the Iraq of Saddam Hussein. The chancelleries are now preparing the post-House of Thani.

Qatar’s recourse for Turkish, Pakistani or Russian protection is vein because this quasi city-state, encircled by its opponents, is indefensible. A single bombing of Doha, even symbolic, will ruin the kingdom’s economy, as expatriates will flee the country without hesitation or soul searching. Moreover, a campaign of demonisation as unfounded and calumnious as that carried out against Gaddafi has already been launched against the Qatari regime. The campaign’s aim is not only the overthrow of the House of Thani but also the seizure of the country’s assets and its current rulers in favour of supposed resistance movements that will not fail to be invented. Azerbaijan

Historically, the Muslim Caucasus became Russian in the 19th century due to the Tsarist regime’s claim to be the protector of Orthodox people of Georgia and Armenia, trigging some 20 years of war with the Shah of Persia, and more explicitly between a Christian and a Muslim country.

As in Central Asia, the leaders of the Republic of Azerbaijan are wary of Pan-Turkism, preferring to forge their own identity by appropriating mostly Iranian historical and cultural elements: Zarathushtra, Nezami, the golden age of Tabriz… As for the Azeris, they do not wish to be confused with either Turks or Arabs, and they consider themselves to be more like Muslim Russians than anyone else. Yet, the Muslim side is well watered down. Indeed, this country has experienced under the Tsars a strong period of economic development thanks to the exploitation of oil there. The integration being strong in the subsequent Soviet period, the Middle Azeri is inclined to regard the Russian as a friend and relative.

Due to its geographical position, President Ilham Aliyev will sooner or later be obliged to join in some form or another the Russian Empire that Putin is reconstituting. On this point, Russians will be intractable and will not tolerate that the Caspian Basin escapes to their total domination.

Central Asia

Since the dawn of humanity, Central Asia has seen various ethnic groups cross its lands to populate Europe. Over the centuries, Turkish tribes have overlapped with the antique Iranian population, but more recent times have brought Greeks, Arabs, Indians, the Mongol invaders of the thirteenth century, and finally Russians.

The Soviet Russification scheme has had a long-term impact on Central Asia. Over time, the Soviet regime has created local Russified elites by attracting and training young Central Asians while weakening the indigenous languages to promote Russian and Cyrillic alphabet.

But the cultural domination of Russia in Central Asia had its apex at the back and is challenged by China who is literally buying this region. As a land of encounter, passage and invasion, Transoxiana has recurrently passed from one hand to another. Today, we witness the Chinese take over slowly but steadily Central Asia, including Afghanistan.

Modern history aptly documents three centuries of Russian influence in the region but neglects China’s longstanding legacy there. Chinese scholars such as Zhao Huasheng emphasise the “deep historical roots” between China and Central Asia that commenced in 60 bc under the Han Dynasty.

Central Asia is an important overland source of oil and natural gas for fuelling China’s growth. It represents a lucrative market for affordable Chinese exports in place of a withdrawn Soviet infrastructure and patronage. Most recently, Central Asia has become an essential transit corridor for higher-value Chinese goods to the European Union.

A sense of urgency compels Chinese interactions with Central Asia from a standpoint of national interest. China’s demographic imbalance means that its dense population centres are reaching capacity. Central Asia is a strategic and growing source of energy, market access and business opportunities. Moreover, cross-border security and development projects between Xinjiang and the Central Asian states are important to China for mitigating the perceived risks of separatism, extremism and terrorism within its geographic rear. Acute demographic imbalance, such as that between Far East Russia and neighbouring Chinese provinces, where the population is 20 times greater, illustrates such a concern.

Conclusion

To pretend to know the winner of this “game” is presumptuous, as the countries of the region are bound by conflicting interests and aspirations. We see it well with Turkey which has come closer with its ancestral enemy that is Russia to the great displeasure of Germany and NATO. Let us recall, however, that in 1921-22, the Bolshevik Russians had already rushed to the Turks’ aid to repel the Greek invasion. ■

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