Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Apr 05, 2021
The Road from the Khyber to the Bosporus: Partnerships, Perils and Opportunities

Khyber and the Bosporus bookend a region teeming with the world’s most challenging conflicts, including the latest chapter of unrest in Afghanistan, the persisting Arab–Persian and Sunni–Shi’a divide, and the Syrian Civil War that has so far claimed over 350,000 lives.

The current potpourri of multiple actors and interests, changing interstate relationships, and a shifting regional equilibrium do not portend an easy or quick resolution to these frictions. Syria, in particular, remains a poster child for the political quagmire that is the Middle East, even as the last Islamic State (IS) stronghold in the country is being cleared and the latest iteration and round of the peace process continues, several axes of discussion are germane.

The question of US withdrawal, which will have on-the-ground and long-term consequences. A flip-flopping policy, both under Obama and Trump, on whether and to what extent American troops and presence will shrink, stands against the significant firepower and power-projection capabilities that the US still lays claim to in the Middle East. It is unlikely to enforce a “clean cut” disengagement. If defining a “sustainable” presence—politically, economically, and otherwise—results in reduced American forces and overall presence in Syria and/or Afghanistan, will the new status quo be equally sustainable for the region? Richard Fontaine cited the regrowth of the IS as another worry, which cannot be ruled out unless a permanent security presence is established. But who will fill in the vacuum and to what extent?

2. The progression of the Russia–Turkey–Iran alliance and what it implies for Syria and the regional order. Close engagement between the three, in and on Syria, will continue, particularly with a US withdrawal on the cards. Each country has its own national security considerations and the opportunity to play a pivotal role in the broader region. The trilateral Astana format initiated by these three stakeholders—initially intended to supplement the lagging UN-led Geneva talks—has become a front runner for the peace process in Syria. There is recognition of the role each plays in the region and of the interlocking interests that trump bilateral disputes and historicity. Longterm results remain to be seen: how far the goodwill amongst the three extends; where unilateral action stacks up against joint endeavours; how equilibrium will be reached between their respective red lines and priorities, beyond the “meta ideal of a democratically elected Syrian government”, and to what extent they will respond collectively to other actors and their actions.

3. The Middle East as being representative of the broader tension between multipolarity and multilateralism in the world order. On the one hand is the trend, as Memduh Karakullukcu puts it, of “low-cost multipolarity,” embodied by sparser resources committed by powers and lower expectations in the region. While this will create more space for more restrained regional actors, such as Turkey, to exercise their strategic autonomy, they too will be reticent in bearing the full costs of owning the burden of the Middle East. This will only strengthen the phenomenon of “multipolarity lite”. On the other hand is the reality of “polycentricity,” a position voiced by Sergey Ryabkov. Given the multiplicity of actors, various networks of partnerships are emerging in this region and beyond. Of these two, which interpretation finds favour in an era of increased trust deficits will be critical in determining the rules by which players engage in Syria, the broader Middle East or elsewhere.

4. The role that an emerging power like India should play in the Middle East. India’s position remains largely that of a bystander in the political bargaining in the region, but it stands to lose a lot in the face of persisting instability in the Middle East. As such, while the present Indian government has energised ties with countries and groupings in this part of the world, India is, as Manish Tewari put it, “happy building libraries.” Indeed, the prioritisation of bilateral ties and humanitarian effort may serve India better in the short to medium term, even as it must watch regional developments carefully.

5. The methods that will be put to use to effect change. The issue of sanctions, pertinent across the broader Middle East, still finds proponents on both sides. Questions about the legitimacy and effectiveness of unilateral sanctions are pitted against the reality of their being a ready part of foreign policy arsenals. The phenomenon of personality-led engagement is currently on a global rise, as evident in Syria and the Middle East. While strongman politics dictate the way, what role can institutional arrangements play? What will secure the most rational and legitimate solutions? The humanitarian crisis engendered by both the Syrian civil war and the battle against the IS continues unabated. Now that the last pocket of IS-held territory in northern Syria has been recaptured, and expectations regarding the Assad government have been recalibrated, this discussion should occur in the specific context of stabilisation and reconstruction efforts.

This essay originally appeared in Raisina Dialogue Conference Report 2019
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Ritika Passi

Ritika Passi

Ritika Passi works at the intersection of economics and security. Her research focuses on regional connectivity initiatives and power shifts in global economic governance. She ...

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