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Caucasus war stirs Middle East identity debate

As the conflict rages in Nagorno-Karabakh, the question of belonging rises to the fore among Middle East nations

Salah Nasrawi , Wednesday 14 Oct 2020
Caucasus war stirs Middle East identity debate
Rescuers searching for victims and survivors at the site hit by a rocket during fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, Sunday (photo: AFP)
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The largely Shia-dominated Azerbaijan is backed by Turkey in its war with Armenia. The Shia Islamic Republic of Iran favours Armenia and Sunni Arab nations seem to tilt towards the mostly Christian nation in the current conflict in the Caucasus. 

On a community level, division on the war in Nagorno-Karabakh is nowhere more evident than in Lebanon, the region’s most colourful mosaic of sects where Christians, Shias, Sunnis and other ethnicities are sharply split on the conflict between the two former Soviet republics. 

Across the Middle East, the war in Nagorno-Karabakh has sparked heated debate over the territorial conflict which is increasingly framed as a clash around religious, sectarian and ethnic lines.

The long-simmering conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh flared up in late September apparently driven by an attempt by Azerbaijan to recapture swathes of territories occupied by Armenian forces for some 30 years. 

The current fighting between the two countries has been surpassing periodic escalations, involving troops, heavy artillery, tanks, missiles, warplanes and drones. 

Hundreds of people have been killed and wounded while thousands more have been driven from their homes on both sides as residents sought shelter from the relentless exchange of artillery fire. 

Like in many parts of the world where religious and ethnic divisions have been source of contention and manipulation, the new war in the disputed enclave has raised fears of outside intervention if the conflict gets much messier.

The stakes in the Nagorno-Karabakh war are high, especially with main neighbouring countries having divided regional interests, while many of them may look at the conflict through a religious or ethnic lens.

Turkey provides full-throated support to Azerbaijan mainly because Azeris belong to the same Turkish ethnicity, and also due to the long-standing hostility between the Turks and Armenians who accused the Ottomans of committing genocide against them at the beginning of the 20th century. 

Iran, meanwhile, has adopted a neutral stance and has repeatedly offered to mediate over the past three decades. But the Persian-dominated nation has been traditionally worried about rising Azeri nationalism, for fear it will spur its own large Turkish minority. 

Besides, Shia-dominated Iran wants to maintain its huge economic interests with largely Christian Armenia, especially the strategic route its northern neighbour provides for its trade and energy exports to Europe.

Reactions from governments in the Arab and Islamic worlds have been largely muted, even though some of them feel the escalating conflict is too dangerous to ignore.

For a region with diversified populations of religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, the conflict in the Caucasus will naturally, however, be a polarising and divisive issue in the Middle East. 

As hostilities rage between Azerbaijan and Armenia, an intense social media war is being waged for the moral high ground at a time of increasing gridlock on regional sectarian and ethnic conflicts.

Many Christians are supporting Armenia, Turkomans back Azerbaijan and Muslim Shia and Sunnis are divided between those who are toeing Iran’s line and those who are fearful of Turkey’s increasing influence in the region. 

Apart from the propaganda war to recruit official and public opinion, some Middle East communities are reportedly caught in the bloody conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and some are dying. 

While members of Syrian National Army (SNA), the umbrella term for a group of opposition militias backed by Turkey, are reportedly fighting with Azerbaijan, the Kurdish Democratic Party in Syria denied Turkish claims it had sent some of its troops to fight with Armenia. 

Another conflict between India and Pakistan last year also provoked similar controversy when New Delhi withdrew the special status of the Jammu and Kashmir region, virtually annexing the Muslim majority-dominated state to India. 

While many Muslims worldwide lambasted India for the annexation of the region, Pakistan was outraged by the muted response of most governments in the Islamic world despite desperate calls for support. 

Each of these two conflicts and the sentiments surrounding them have been the latest events underlining the dynamics around collective identities and signalling the emergence of a new outlook in international and regional relationships.

These two conflicts will unlikely be the last example of polarisation in the Middle East which continues to witness tectonic socio-political changes in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Arab uprisings in 2011. 

Though communalism is deep rooted in Middle East history, the region has witnessed a tremendous shift towards sectarian and ethnicity-based politics which are redefining the sense of belonging of its individuals and its nations. 

While geopolitical and economic factors remain inarguably relevant in Middle East conflicts, religious and other ethnic identities deeply interwoven in its societies have demonstrated again a significant role in the region’s dynamics. 

Though state failure, dysfunctional governments and geopolitical discord have contributed to conflicts in countries such as Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Yemen, sectarianism remains behind present day unrest and upheavals. 

Worse still, these kinds of identity politics have surpassed their local influence to mean an eventual extension of regional politics into domestic affairs and national policies. 

This is clearly evident in Iran’s and Turkey’s cases where Tehran and Ankara have been trying to consolidate influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Yemen, manipulating communal rifts in these beleaguered countries. 

Notwithstanding other key factors, the simmering sectarian conflicts in these hotbeds are largely blamed for the mounting identity crisis as seen in the region’s principal fault line: Sunni versus Shia. 

But it is also seen in other disputes haunting the Middle East, clearly articulated in the geopolitical and cultural competition between major stakeholders that entertain regional power.

In a broader sense, the Middle East has been transformed by these identity politics, which relate to changes in attitudes and the adjustment of political culture to dynamically changing dimensions. Politics has shifted inwardly from traditional pan-Arabism, anti-Western and anti-Israel cleavages to a new cleavage focused on sectarianism or ethnicity and outwardly seeking new alliances. 

One interpretation of the new normalisation process triggered by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain striking agreements with Israel is that’s more about rising Iranian and Turkish regional influence than about peace. 

This may explain why reactions to the Caucasus war in the Middle East suggest a more dynamical approach to both identity politics and the nature of regional unrest, where both are interacting to enflame conflict. 

This could also explain the recent public debate about the viability of the Arab League after the organisation failed to support a Palestinian request to condemn the UAE and Bahrain deals with Israel in line with its numerous resolutions that ban normal relationships with Israel before it returns land it occupied in 1967.

While traditionally the Arabs wanted closer relations with their brethren, now a sense of fear and disenfranchisement is making many Arab governments and individuals seek to maintain close relations with outside powers. 

Today, many Arabs blame the Palestinians for lacking a vision or a plan for peace with Israel. Others are looking to Iran and Turkey as a strategic threat, and not Israel. 

Some have even been contemplating establish an Arab NATO, which would bring the United States and Israel together with Sunni Arab states in opposition to Iran. 

Whether the cause of conflicts in the Middle East or the result, as some would argue, the question of belonging continues to impact national politics to become a driving force in geopolitical competition and regional political rivalries. 

Due to its very nature, the phenomenon, with its internal and external implications, will continue to drive the discourse of identity politics probably for a long time, while stoking debate over the future of the Middle East.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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