Idlib deal may mark the era of great-power management in Middle East - academic

The deal between Turkey and Russia reached last month over the northwestern Syrian town of Idlib, the last major rebel-held enclave in the country, indicates the emergence of a new international order in the Middle East, political scientist Peter S. Henne said on Washington Post on Friday.

Turkish-Russian deal, which  includes the establishment of a demilitarised zone in Idlib and the disarmament of rebel forces, effectively postponed a possible military assault of the Syrian government against the city.

“While hardly a permanent solution, the deal highlights the shifting international relations of the region,” Henne said, adding that, since the Arab Spring, the democratic uprisings that spread across the Arab world in 2011, 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,” Henne said.

Henne said that both Russia and Turkey have played major roles in the Syrian civil war and competed for regional dominance. While Moscow is an ally of the Syrian government in Damascus, Ankara have backed some rebel forces fighting in Syria and tried to prevent territorial advances of Kurdish armed forces in the country, which it sees as an extension of Kurdistan Workers Party, an armed group which has been fighting inside Turkey since 1984.

“These struggles may mark a new era of relations in the region,” Henne said.

Conflicts in the Middle East are not due just to clashing state interests but to shared “models of political survival”, Henne said, adding that first pan-Arabism and later conventional sovereignty as the norm have shaped the regional dynamics since the end of the World War II. 

“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,” Henne said. 

The Idlib deal doesn’t fit any of these previous models and could be a case of great-power management, he said, adding that the Turkish-Russian deal not only resolves the conflict in Syria, but also establishes guidelines for the numerous states involved. 

Other recent crises in the region, such as the “blockade” of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other states and the war in Yemen, which appear to involve sectarian or revolutionary/conservative divisions may actually be failed attempts at great-power management, according to Henne. 

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