Russian Middle East experts unanimously agree that the current deepening of division lines across the Middle East increases the risk of a bigger regional conflict and urge for close coordination with the West.

A man searches for survivors under the rubble of houses destroyed by Saudi airstrikes in the old city of Sanaa, Yemen, Friday, June 12, 2015. Photo: AP

Amidst the ongoing turmoil in Syria, tensions in Yemen and the increasing threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Russia's experts are preoccupied with the future of the Middle East. 

Recently, they gathered in Moscow to discuss the current transformation of the region within the framework of the “Middle East Week” organized by the Moscow State Institute of International Affairs (MGIMO-University) and unanimously agreed that the current deepening of division lines across the Middle East increases the risk of a bigger regional conflict.

“The conflicts that are happening across the region increase the level of disintegration, which can lead to the deterioration of international security problems and to the change of world trade and energy flows,” said Rector of MGIMO-University Anatoliy Torkunov.

What has profoundly changed in the Middle East in recent decades is the changing power balance and fragmentation of the Arab world.

Traditionally strong Egypt, which claimed to be the leader of the Arab world, as well as relatively strong but ambitious Iraq and Syria – all lost their positions. Iraq lost its position due to the U.S. invasion in 2003 and further occupation; Syria and Egypt because of the “Arab Spring” which threw one country into civil war and put another on the brink of economic collapse.

This led to the absence of unity among the Arab nations because everyone holds a different approach to the chaos that occurred in the region and how to deal with it.

In such circumstances, the Saudi Arabia-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states form a sort of regional power center. With an abundance of energy resources giving them a certain degree of economic independence, the GCC states managed to come through the turbulence of the last few years almost untouched, albeit seriously challenged.

As a result, the balance of power in the region tilted more towards the economically and politically stable Saudi Arabia-led GCC states.

Also, Shia Iran has become the most influential state in the Persian Gulf capable of challenging Saudi leadership. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq contributed to that, resulting in the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the weakening of Iraq and the rise of Shia groups to power. Consequently, Iran expanded its power through Iraq into the Mediterranean, creating the so-called “Shia crescent” in the region – Iran-Iraq-Syria-Lebanon, which Sunni Arab states are so afraid of.

The majority of Russian Middle East experts argue that the role of the Sunni-Shia confrontation is highly overestimated as a major source of instability in the region.

In this vein, senior researcher at the Oriental Studies Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences Lana Ravandi-Fadai underlined that, “Iran’s role in the region is overestimated and Tehran’s ability to influence political processes in the Middle East is exaggerated.” She also echoed other experts and Russian diplomats arguing that, in general, the Sunni-Shia struggle in the region is clearly overstated.

Former Russian ambassador to Yemen, Libya and Tunisia Veniamin Popov argues that, “Previously people in the region did not pay much attention to the Shia-Sunni division at all, because there was none.”

The rise of Iran and the quite real possibility that the sanctions that are keeping Iran down might be lifted will most likely lead to Iran’s faster economic development. This would lead to an increase of political influence in the region, something that threatens Sunni leadership in the Middle East, thus creating more instability.

As Saudi Arabia and the GCC states have become the power center of the Sunni Arabs in the region, their perceptions of regional security and threats automatically affect the entire regional security system.

Russia and the US must coordinate their actions in a volatile region

Recent developments in the region indicate that the current Sunni Arab leadership perceives threats to security and stability differently. Saudi Arabia, being the regional leader, perceives the political threat from Shia Iran as more acute than the conventional military and ideological threat from Sunni Islamism.

From this perspective, the threat from Iran puts the entire region at greater risk of instability. Recent developments in Yemen have proven that.

In March of 2015 Saudi Arabia spearheaded a coalition of nine Arab states into a military air campaign against the Houthi coup in Yemen. Saudis see Iranian involvement everywhere when Shia minorities in the Gulf protest (Bahrain, Yemen, and within Saudi Arabia itself).

However, Iranian political influence is not an existential threat to Saudi Arabia, unlike radical Sunni Islamism, whose adepts already declared a war against the Kingdom and conducted a suicide attack on its territory in May 2015.

As a result, Yemen is in tatters and regional stability is under greater threat than it was before. Moreover, it increased the threat from terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda of the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS, as they are the ones who benefit from the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen. In this situation, Houthis represent the only force on the ground which can fight against AQAP and IS.

Pakistan and Egypt, which were initially ready to deploy their ground troops to Yemen, currently are reluctant to do so. Saudi Arabia alone is unlikely to deploy its ground troops without backing from the U.S. The White House is also reluctant to launch any ground campaign in Yemen, but is still expressing its support for Saudi Arabia.

Ambassador Popov noted that, “The U.S. is currently in a very unpleasant situation in Yemen: Previously Washington conducted anti-terror operations against Al-Qaeda which now controls twice more territory.”

Partly because of this, partly because of Washington’s “betrayal” of Riyadh (flirting with Tehran over its nuclear program), Saudi Arabia’s elite started to understand that they needed to start seeking alternative supporters whether it is China, Russia or Europe, Popov said.

Another aspect here is that the U.S. is already involved in crisis in Syria and Iraq and cannot afford to get bogged down in Yemen or even to create another volatile area in the region because it directly affects its attempts to counter terrorism in the Middle East and to make a deal with Iran. Therefore, the U.S. cannot solve the whole pack of problems in the region alone.

Russian experts and diplomats see current conditions in the Middle East as a unique opportunity for a larger coordination of actions between Russia and the West, especially the U.S. This is the moment when Russia and the U.S. can have a fresh start.

As the deadline for the final nuclear deal agreement with Iran, June 30, is approaching and the possibility of its successful conclusion is looming, major powers should take more decisive steps in settling the crisis in Yemen. In these circumstances, the U.S. and Russia should exercise their influence over all involved parties in the conflict and make them sit around the table and negotiate.

Major powers should resolve the crisis in Yemen so that it does not reach the scale of the one in Syria. Either way, it might be too late and it may give Islamists another fertile ground for operations, which will minimize the impact of any major anti-terrorism attempts of the world’s powers in the Middle East.