Russia and the Return of Civilizations in the Near East – Part III

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By Dr. David Wurmser
January 21, 2020

In parts I and II of this series, we examined the rise of Russia’s foreign policy as a consequence of its belief in the rise of culture and civilization as the foundations for understanding the Middle East after the collapse of the Sykes-Picot state system, focusing on the three reemerging urban civilizations, the Byzantine, the Indo-Persian and Jewish. In this final part of the series, we will examine the two originally nomadic cultures and civilizations – the Ottoman and Arab – and the affect Russian strategy, based on this imagery, will have on its relations with the United States and its interests in the Middle East.

In the western corner of the Near East, Ottoman civilization occupies the Byzantine heartland. It is ultimately derived from the rise of Turkic nomads, and thus as it re-asserts its origins, it inherently reasserts the values of its Mongolian civilization welded onto the inherited urban civilization of Asia Minor, making it an urban-nomadic blend. That said, Arab and Ottoman Sunni cultures share some critically similar attributes having emerged from nomadic origins – especially the quest to seek safety, protection and fairness through a ruler and government defined around family, community and sect – rather than attributes derived from ancient Greece and Persia, who were defined around cities (polis).

If indeed the main architecture of the region reverts to older cultural-civilizational centers as the currently dominant force of the region, the Arab Sunnis appear to be slowly reverting to their 2000-year-old pattern of subjecting themselves to the dominance of great powers. What is fascinating is that the Arab world is more willingly plunging into this role than being forced into it. The hopeful age of Arab nationalism is dead, and Salafi attempts at resurrecting the original Khaliphate – the only genuinely still active attempt to resurrect Arab culture as a civilizational center of power – have stalled. The Arab world cannot hold its own nor is there an Arab power strong and vibrant enough to become the strong horse. Saudi Arabia tried to play that role, but it is increasingly clear it cannot persevere in this. In recent months, the trend is discernable: Saudi Arabia’s key allies, such as the UAE, are admitting Saudi Arabia is not up to the task. And Riyadh itself is seeking a protective umbrella. As it has since the rise of the Nabateans, with the brief exception of the first decades of Islam, the Arab world as a whole is still anchored to the quest for divining the strong horse with which to align in order to secure protection. It is thus dividing into camps as dependent allies of the great regional civilizational centers of power, seeking the protection of either the neo-Ottoman empire, Russia, Persia or even Israel. It is as if the long period of Ghassanid Arab politics two millennia ago, where the great divide between Rome, Byzantium, Abyssinia and Persia pulled apart nomadic Arabs into being proxies and pawns for their great power competitions.

The power against which many of the Arab nations seek protection is increasingly the neo-Ottoman empire in addition to Iran, as a recent map in Saudi Arabia’s al-Watan paper showed (which portrayed both Turkey and Iran as Octipodes with tentacles equally threatening Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia). Ironically, the remnant Arab nationalist elite, whose ancestral families attained elevated status from their roles as local Arab, Turkish-vassals a century ago, are now aligning with Persian Gulf royal families in descending into an increasingly bitter struggle against the neo-Ottoman empire under Erdogan. Unable to turn to Persia for help, they turn to whom they must: Israel. Israel thus seems to be enjoying a bit of an attenuated honeymoon at the moment with some of its Arab neighbors. In this context, Israel remains largely introverted but is accidentally stumbling into the role of protector without even realizing it. Israel, however, remains entirely oblivious to this vast regional re-arrangement.

However, a sizeable dose of caution is warranted into loading too much hope onto Israeli-Arab relations. Although Israel reemerges as one of the regional civilizations from which Arabs and others (notably other regional minorities, such as Christians, Druze, Yazidis, Bahai, Kurds, etc.) seek protection, Israel follows form and remains largely introverted in its aims. Indeed, becoming a regional superpower burdened with the responsibility of protection or regional policeman appears to be a role entirely beyond Israelis either to effectively imagine or even moreso within which to willingly entangle itself (much like their close American ally). Moreover, while still buried in the overgrown underbrush of history, the history of Jewish-Arab relations in terms of ancient civilizations is not too hopeful a precedent if each reverts to form and origin. The great myth of Arab tolerance of Jews, while certainly at times slightly better than Christendom’s treatment of Jews, is just that: a myth, even during the ostensible golden age of Spain, let alone later.1 Jews during the Ghassanid period two millennia ago played the role of the ally, buffer and even agent of Persia against the Ghassanid tribes, although the bulk of Jewish population was under Roman control. Indeed, the Jewish community of the Hejaz anchored to towns of Khaybar and Medina faced hostility from pro-Roman Ghassanid tribes under the descendants of the Nabatean King Arethas (which metamorphosized into the al-Harith clan of early Islamic fame), who saw the Jews as Persian agents – a perception which may have been harbored by Muhammad’s family itself (since it was linked to the al-Harith clan) – and may even have played a role in Muhammad’s massacre of those communities. And in the Middle East, time is malleable; affairs of 1400 years ago are often seen as current.

While the West persists in viewing the past, present and future course of the region almost exclusively through the prism of Sunni Muslim Arab culture as driving the region, strategically, Russia is bypassing or writing off the Sunni-Arab world and its natural ally, neo-Ottoman Turkey, and seeks to bring other main civilizational centers under its sway, most likely to eventually encircle the neo-Ottoman empire which Erdogan seeks to erect.

Russia may be onto something. With its concept of the Eurasian “vertical axis,” Moscow certainly appreciates the Sunni Arab world as critically important, being the southern anchor to that axis. However, it also seems to appreciate that the Arab world has ceased largely to be an independent center of power. Using the terminology of the last hundred years since the dawn of the Arab Awakening, with the exception of the Sunni revolt represented by ISIS or al-Qaida, the Arab world has largely again become the subject rather than the object of history. Consequently, Moscow appears to envision the Sunni Arab world’s management indirectly through alignment with the other regional civilizational centers of power rather than directly becoming its protector (or imperial overlord). Ultimately, though, Russia is locked inevitably in a conflictual relationship with both the neo-Ottoman empire under Erdogan or some Sunni Arab Khaliphate-entity under Salafi rule (ISIS, for example), so in the end, the battle over the Sunni Arab world is one Russia cannot afford to lose. Thus, Russia will ally with any force that prevents the Sunni world’s domination by either a neo-Ottoman or a Salafi Khalif.

Where does leave the United States?

While we do not think in such cultural, civilizational terms, the West itself is sorting these very issues out internally as we teeter between a traditional definition of the West on the one hand anchored to our foundations as an alloy of Rome and Jerusalem, carried through our political origins in the renaissance and early enlightenment and carried through as an extension of British institutions, and on the other a more revolutionary definition emerging from the late enlightenment and the French revolution and carried through into modern post-Judeo-Christian continental European politics.

Immersed in such an evaluation of our civilizational foundations, we naturally retreat into a more introverted focus. Those advocating a more traditional foundation of American political culture look to insulate America from the increasingly intrusive behavior of the European elites, and the international institutions they leverage, to reshape the United States into a more favorable essence for themselves. In reaction, many Americans are more determined to sever ties to European elites and the global institutions precisely because they are seen (or sensed, if not fully understood) as agents of political ideas anathema to traditional American thought. Indeed, while the prescription offered by Russia is radically different, and very dangerous to traditional American thought, the current crop of Russian thinkers and American conservatives do share a deep suspicion of European elites and their increasingly imperial, although failing, brand of post-religious, state-moored self righteousness. Moreover, the hopeful assumption of the universality of the classic renaissance-based liberal ideas has been sorely tried in decades of interventions in the Middle East, almost all of which ended unhappily.

The upshot is that those American thinkers who are most equipped to understand the need for preservation and reinvigoration of the foundations of traditional American thought are also those who most seek to inoculate America through isolation and most allergic to sacrificing on a global scale to make the world safe for European elites who simultaneously seek to undo American conservative thought while relying on American power because they are unwilling and thus ultimately unable to defend their own interests. It was only a matter of time before more conservative American thinkers rebelled and push to abdicate the unenvious role of being the protector of Europe’s hostile continental elites.

At times, that rebellion has led some conservatives into an overly benign view of Russia’s critique (and among a select few, even of the Middle East’s) of those same European elites. At the same time the more continental European-oriented left sees Russia’s critique of their ideas for what they are: a mortal threat. As such, the increasingly polarized nature of American politics is forcing an increasingly polarized view of Russia, and is driving some into taking more rigid lines for or against Russia than would have otherwise been warranted given the vast chasm between the aims of American conservatives and Russian thinkers.

As the fertile crescent slowly reorganizes around the much older but more genuine foundations of ancient culture, it appears to be entering the long road to modernity and solid political units, although that will take many decades to sort out. In contrast, the heart of the Arab world appears to be descending into increased fractionalization and vassal-like “help me,” “save me” and “secure for me justice” type politics of the half-millennium before the rise of Islam.

The strategic implications of this are immense, but where does this leave the United States, especially given its recent proclivity toward introversion? Clearly, Russia is more adept than we are in discerning and exploiting this, resulting in a substantial challenge to the West. Currently, Russia is immersed in thoughts of great historical and civilizational movements, it is better equipped than the West at this stage to read the currents and navigate them advantageously.

As such, the challenge Russia poses to the crisis of the western “liberal” state is aimed ultimately as much toward both the continental post-French revolutionary foundations of the new left and the more traditional, Renaissance foundations of conservatism. And Russia’s emerging imagery of the Middle East (the vertical axis in which Russia operates) as an extension of the Eurasianist ideology, adds a dimension that truly threatens the West since it can hand Russia a tremendous strategic advantage in the long run when it returns to a policy of directly confronting the West weakened by the erosion of traditional Renaissance and early enlightenment thinking at the hands of a communitarian intellectual tradition that abandons the twin pillars of the Plato-to-NATO continuum and Judeo-Christian reflections on the nature and role of man.

While our increasing introversion is advisable or not, it is real and thus must be factored into shaping our strategic response. Gone are the heady days of where inter-War British foreign office and post-War US foreign service ambassadors or intelligence officers who could credibly aspire to be quasi-imperial governors bringing liberal thought to prostrate lands. The heavy-handed, controlling nature of our foreign policy elite toward genuine allies has to yield to a more equal, mutual defense arrangement where each ally carries their own weight in their areas of power, but is also freed from the shackles of a judgmental US foreign policy elite. In other words, we should be seeking structures of alliances where the civilizational values are genuinely shared, the willingness to carry one’s own weight is matched, and with greater autonomy to each ally to serve as point in its respective area.

This of course means that the United States must be far more discerning, sober – and yes, even informed by a better understanding of these grand historical movements and civilizational attributes – about which of these re-emerging civilizations in the Middle East are our genuine allies, which are non-allied fellow travelers, which are operating at cross purposes, which populations could be “turned” given their civilizational foundations, and which are fence-sitters.

In this, political correctness dominating the left will be our demise, as would be a facile belief among some on the right that the bubble of our isolation is our bio-spheric fortress of safety. Moreover, the current black-white view of Russia would best be yielded to a more nuanced appreciation of when Russia is operating as the enemy, when it operates as the enemy of our enemy (such as with Erdogan’s Turkey), when it outright threatens our allies (Israel), and when it is competing with us to turn the same populations into an ally (such as Iranians and Middle Eastern Christians).

Finally, we and our allies clearly no longer think in these historical and civilizational terms. And yet, we must be aware that others do. In the Cold War, we became accustomed to envisioning ourselves as the leader of the free world, but for the current Russian and Middle Eastern elites, we are also the modern manifestation of the civilization of the Enlightenment and the Renaissance – and its resultant focus on the inalienable rights of man — which some Russian elites view as having caused Christendom’s corruption. And for some Middle Eastern regimes, especially those along the fertile crescent who are hostile but also think in historical and civilizational terms, they see us as a Christian nation and the idea of free will and sovereignty of man as heretical. Unable to see the depth of our civilization, they see signs of our enlightenment, measured secularism and free debate as a sign of the erosion of our Christian soul, and thus as an outwardly impressive, but inwardly rotten and hollow tree. And still, the constant reminder of our success and power unrivaled in history inevitably is the ultimate threat to their ideologies. We are their enemy by no choice of our own. Of course, those civilizations who seek to defend themselves against those regimes, and those populations who seek to free themselves from those ideologies, also see this. We are their inspiration through no choice of our own.

But being forced into such an inescapable role, we must avoid the illusions of utopian, politically correct ideas and the momentary comfort of retreating into fortress America

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1: Darío Fernández-Morera, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise (ISI Books, 2016) and