West Asia: Are We Approaching the End of Sykes-Picot?

One hundred years after the British Empire secretly negotiated with the French Empire, in 1916, the carving up of the “Middle East” (West Asia) into separate colonies and satrapies, diplomatic and economic efforts by China and Russia could put an end to this century of bloody divide-and-conquer strategy. Its most violent aspect was the Shia-Sunni sectarian divide that followed the illegal British-American invasion of Iraq in 2003. The two poles of this divide in the region, Iran and Saudi Arabia, finally reached on March 10 a China-brokered rapprochement agreement to restore the diplomatic ties that had been severed since 2016, after the execution by Riyadh of a Saudi Shia cleric, prompting Iranian protesters to storm and burn the Saudi embassy in Tehran (cf. SAS 11/23).

It is of great importance to mention that these efforts took almost seven years to come to fruition, following Xi Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt in 2016. While the U.S. Administration and the British attempted to sabotage the process (including the assassination of Iranian military leader Ghasem Soleimani in Baghdad in Jan. 2020 as he was carrying a message from Tehran to Saudi Arabia via Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi), China continued to press ahead with economic cooperation deals with both sides and with all other countries in the region. As a result, there were two major “comprehensive strategic agreements” with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, last year and this. President Xi’s summits with Saudi Arabia, with the Gulf Cooperation Council, and with Arab leaders in Dec. 2022 redefined the development perspective for all of West Asia.

Russia, for its part, has been mediating contacts between Syria and Turkey to end the chaotic security situation in northwest Idlib province, where terrorist groups and armed extremists backed by the U.S. and NATO have been destabilizing both countries. U.S. boots on the ground in the eastern part of Syria remains a major destabilizing factor in this whole situation, but an agreement between Turkey and Syria could bring this under control.

Syrian President Bashar Assad visited the United Arab Emirates in mid-March to meet with its leader Mohammed ben Zayed after a break of 12 years. A potential meeting between Assad and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed ben Salman is also in the making. Saudi Arabia and the UAE were instrumental in the Anglo-American regime change operation against Assad launched in 2011. But now the tide of history has turned. Syria is poised to regain its legitimate seat in the Arab League which it lost in 2011.

Yemen too is being affected by this spree of Chinese-Russian diplomacy. The first major prisoners exchange was successfully brokered by the UN Envoy to Yemen last week. Negotiations between the Houthis in Sanaa and their rival, the Saudi-backed government in exile, are set to resume soon. A ceasefire has been in place since last April. But Iranian influence over the Houthis might bring an end to the war that was launched by Saudi Arabia in March 2015, with absolutely horrendous consequences for the Yemeni people and economy.

Thus, the new paradigm of peaceful resolution of conflicts based on economic cooperation and the principles of the Westphalian Treaty may finally be embraced in the region.

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