A new report from a group of leading Middle East experts in Russia lays out the primary challenges facing the troubled region.

Smoke rises from a small-scale operation distilling crude oil into diesel and other products near al-Jawadiyah, Syria. Photo: Tyler Hicks/The New York Time

On Sept. 19, the Valdai Discussion Club presented a new report, “The Middle East in a Time of Troubles: Traumas of the Past and Challenges of the Future,” which analyzes the primary factors that have led to the destabilization of the region. The report was prepared by a team of Middle East experts from the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, supervised by the Institute’s President, Vitaly Naumkin.

The authors of the report point out that trends that began in the Middle East with the Arab Spring six years ago are now posing security challenges for a broader geographic region that now includes Russia. These destabilizing factors include the weakening or destruction of state institutions, bloody civil wars, conflicts escalating and spilling over into neighboring territories, humanitarian crises and the spread of terrorism.

Unfortunately, the interference of external actors into other countries’ domestic affairs using political, financial and military means did not bring the desired results and only led to the deterioration of the regional security architecture. As a result, the entire region has found itself in a much more volatile situation than it was before 2011.

Destabilizing factors

One of the key destabilizing factors for the current situation in the region is the strengthening of religious identity at the expense of state identity. This leads to a dangerous form of de-secularization, argues Irina Zvyagelskaya, senior research fellow of the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Institute of Oriental Studies.

De-secularization leads to decreased trust in state institutions and thus to erosion of the state power vertical and its influence on the population. “Nation-states are in crisis as internal contradictions grow along religious, ethnic and other lines. It also contributes to the weakness of the state institutions and a low level of trust in them on the part of citizens,” Zvyagelskaya points out.

Total or partial disintegration of state institutions in Libya, Yemen and Syria are vivid examples of how systemic efforts to influence the situation from the outside have failed. This naturally increases the volatility in the region and results in crises spreading further in the region.

The crisis of the state in places like Libya, Syria and Yemen has created a trend toward disintegration that is hard to restrain. The current situation in Sudan and the recent coup attempt in Turkey vividly demonstrate that the crisis in the Middle East is spreading and is far from over, argued Naumkin.

Almost all experts recognize rising fundamentalism as one of the major destabilizing factors in the Middle East. “The rise of non-state actors and their irresponsible actions, together with rising religious fundamentalism pose a huge threat to the region,” argues Hay Yanorocak, a researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Against this backdrop, Khaled Yacoub Oweis of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs suggests that, “The key destabilizing factor for the Middle East is the rule of the minorities over majorities and repression conducted by the regimes. This sparked revolts against authoritarian rulers and ultimately threw the countries and the region into chaos.”

In light of the recently struck Syria deal between Russia and the U.S., the panelists touched on the most important issue that also serves a main obstacle to the implementation of the Syrian ceasefire – how to effectively divide the moderate and radical opposition in Syria. This still remains the most difficult task. As the terrorist threat primarily emanates from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) and Jabhat Al Nusra, it is crucial to find effective ways to weaken them.

Despite all the efforts undertaken by Russia and U.S.-led coalitions in their fight against terrorists in Syria and Iraq, “the fight is far from over,” argued Naumkin. “We can destroy ISIS in Mosul and Raqqa, but the problem is not in the organization itself, as it can be quickly replaced by another one. It is the jihadist movement that constantly recruits new followers locally, regionally and internationally,” Naumkin said. This is why more cohesion is needed both on the local and international level.

Another important trend is that the conventional power balance in the region has changed. The traditional Arab triangle of power Egypt, Syria and Iraq lost its influence in the region, while non-Arab states – Iran, Turkey and Israel grew stronger. The Arab world has become deeply fragmented, which sparked competition among the Arab states and created a new struggle along sectarian lines.

In that regard, the current confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia (often depicted as a Sunni-Shia confrontation) is central in the region, as it extends throughout the entire region: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain. It only further destabilizes the situation and increases risks of abrupt escalation across the region. “If the Saudi-Iranian confrontation were resolved – that would be a key,” notes Naumkin.

Also read Russia Direct Report: "Russia's New Strategy in the Middle East"

Russia’s role in the Middle East

Since Russia is the major supporter of the Syrian government and has been directly involved in the Syrian conflict since 2015, many have started to talk about its return to the region and its rising influence there. However, experts assess the nature of its role differently.

Vitaly Naumkin and the co-authors of the report argue that the increased involvement of Russia in the Middle East is stabilizing and it plays a key role in fighting against terrorism.

Yanorocak argues that, “The Russians owe 51 percent of their success in the region to U.S. President Barack Obama’s passive policy in Syria. Obama lost his credibility and global deterrence after he did not stick to his ‘red line’ in Syria. Hence, seeing this as a sign of weakness, Russia began to act more assertively in the region.”

Oweis characterizes Russia’s role in the Middle East as inherently contradictory. “On the one hand Russia bombs Syria and its Sunni rebels and on the other, it tries to be an arbiter it does not work this way. If Russia wants to play a constructive role, it needs to side with the majority, and not support the minority,” suggests Oweis.

Recommended: "What are the prospects for the Russia-US ceasefire in Syria?"

Is there any way out of the Middle East crisis?

As the Middle East is currently the key source of various threats, the major players have to be interested in the settlement of all regional issues.

“Although a significant portion of the Middle East issues is about security, we should not forget about other issues such as economic development, water, education, etc. which also need to be discussed,” suggests Zvyagelskaya. Indeed, revitalization of the debates over these issues can lay a positive ground for building a more stable environment as those issues are less politicized.

As the authors of the report suggested, the most effective way out of the crisis in the Middle East although the most difficult one is to create a new Middle East security system where the concerns and interests of all major players – Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and other Arab states are taken into account and where all of them will play an equal role.