The Middle East has been a source of significant security problems whose obvious manifestations are terrorism and extremism. Several factors feed this trend: the crisis of Islamic civilization arising from disagreements over cause of decline since its peak a millennium ago; the sectarianism-fueled rivalry between the 3 main regional actors — Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey — rising ethnic Kurdish nationalism; and the divergent views of current and rising global powers regarding the region’s future and, in turn, their backing of rival regional powers.
The Syrian civil war is a stark example of these dynamics. Although Russia has withdrawn most of its forces from Syria, it continues to support the Assad regime with arms and diplomacy. Despite increased engagement between Moscow and Washington, the gap between U.S. and Russian views on Assad and other issues such as Ukraine are exacerbating the broader great power relations and sectarian divisions of the Middle East, which in turn are fanning Syria’s civil war. How Russia and the U.S. manage their differences on Syria will be an important test of whether they can cooperate in facilitating a more stable order in the region.
What does Russia want in the Middle East?
I gained some insights into this question during my tenure as the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations from 2008-2009 — a period that coincided with a series of aggressive steps by Russia. Over long conversations with my counterpart, Vitaly Churkin, I concluded that Moscow in fact felt threatened by many of the same concerns animating U.S. policy, such as regional rivalry, sectarian conflict and state collapse. Russia also feared a regional order in which normalizations of relations between regional states and the U.S. would come at Russia’s expense. Russia concluded that hostility between the Middle Eastern states and the West was an acceptable, if imperfect, status quo.
While I do not think Russia’s fundamental orientation toward the region has changed, the Syrian situation, in my view, has deteriorated to the point that a new U.S.-Russian understanding cannot be ruled out.
The key to securing genuine Russian cooperation on Syria is for the U.S. to make a broader diplomatic push, not only to end the Syrian crisis, but also to facilitate a broader regional understanding and promote common concepts that stabilize the region and also safeguard legitimate Russian interests.
The fundamental solution is to promote a regional balance of power, strengthen moderate states and undertake with Russia the heavy lifting of fostering an internal political settlement in Syria.
The U.S. can show Russia and other regional actors that it does not have a stake in the overall sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shias by expanding relations with all states that are backing sectarian forces, including Iran. Concurrently, the U.S. will need to strengthen the military capabilities of the Gulf States to ensure that there is a balance of power in the region. Only then will Saudi Arabia, Turkey and its Sunni allies have the confidence to move toward far-reaching negotiations with Iran or Russia.
Just as the religious wars of Europe eventually provided an impetus for a rules-based order through the Westphalian system, Washington and Moscow should deliberate on whether talks to end the Syrian stalemate might lay the groundwork for a broader architecture for the region.
Above all, Washington and Moscow should jointly press for regional powers to accept three points:
• A principle of mutual acceptance, resolving that the beliefs of all Muslims are equally valid
• A program to promote unity and end sectarian conflicts
• A commitment to cooperate on common practical challenges such as freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf.
A new Middle Eastern understanding could allow the U.S. and Russia to steer regional dialogue toward an internal political settlement in Syria. The key is for regional players to think through power-sharing arrangements, with buy-in from all of the major communities, that can create durable peace. Decentralized, federal or even confederal arrangements — in which the national government has limited functions and each community governs areas where its people predominate — would likely work best.
The status of the Kurdish region in Iraq, which has its own laws and security forces but participates fully in the national government, might be a model to protect the Alawites, preserve Russian bases and give Moscow enough confidence to abandon Assad.
To facilitate such an agreement among the regional parties, the U.S. and Russia should work within the Security Council to convene a conference of all competing local groups and regional allies. A precedent for that is the 2001 Bonn conference, where Washington and Moscow overcame their pre-9/11 differences on Afghanistan and catalyzed agreement on a post-Taliban government for the country.
The time has come for the U.S. and Russia to understand that the civilization crisis in the Middle East is a problem every bit as large as those faced by Europe and East Asia in the darkest periods of the 20th century. If the world’s powers do not undertake the work of normalizing the Middle East, the externalities of the region’s conflicts will impose an enormous cost on the U.S. and Russia alike.
• Zalmay Khalilzad served as U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations. This article contains excerpts from his new memoir, “The Envoy: From Kabul to the White House, My Journey through a Turbulent World.”