Why Central Asia Abnormally Silent on Syria

Posted on 10/20/13
By Sergey Markedonov | Via Global Times
Kazakhstan's presidential palace in Astana. The oil-rich Central Asian country has seen an increase in militancy in recent years. (Photo by Unci_Narynin)
Kazakhstan’s presidential palace in Astana. The oil-rich Central Asian country has seen an increase in militancy in recent years. (Photo by Unci_Narynin)

The US and Russia have enacted a political compromise to place Syrian chemical weapons under international control and destroy them. However, the political crisis in Syria is not limited by this Washington-Moscow deal.

The solution of the “chemical weapons” issue is useless for the resolving of ethno-political and sectarian conflicts that split this Middle Eastern country. It is also not an answer to the future of the Syrian state as an unified entity. The question of the US-led military intervention in the bloody civil war looks like a delayed decision, not one completely abandoned.

Thus the ongoing Syrian instability and the hostilities around it may have consequences that reach far beyond the Middle East. How will the Syrian crisis affect the security dynamics and states of Central Asia whose political importance has been raised due to the upcoming changes in the US and NATO presence in Afghanistan?

The independent states of Central Asia share no common borders with Syria. However, there are many threads that connect them with this Middle Eastern country.

First, the countries of the region are greatly influenced by the two neighboring powers of Russia and China, and are engaged in the integration projects led by Moscow and Beijing, namely the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

Russia, along with China, has a long-running dispute with the West about the relationship between sovereignty and intervention in the domestic political processes.

It is no coincidence that in the documents issued during summits of both aforementioned organizations in 2012 and 2013, serious attention was paid to the defense of this approach to the Syrian crisis.

Political power in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan is so highly personalized that any dramatic shift at the top could unleash serious internal turmoil.

At the same time, all governments in Central Asia value their cooperation with the US. This helps explain their either critical attitude to the use of chemical weapons in Syria or extremely cautious reactions claiming to wait for the international investigation results.

Although opposed to international intervention in domestic policies, Central Asian governments try not to openly irritate Washington.

The region as a whole faces the challenge of politicized Islamism. Until recent years Kazakhstan looked like an island of stability. But the proliferation of radical religious trends and an increase in violent incidents are now the reality of life in Kazakhstan, which experienced its first suicide bombings in 2011.

Kazakhstan was even mentioned by the US Overseas Security Advisory Council as a potential source of security threats. Thus the complete collapse of Syria and the strengthening of its regional competitors like Saudi Arabia and Qatar that support Islamists in Eurasia, as well as the growing role of Al Qaeda cells, are seen as having negative consequence for Central Asia.

Although Turkey and Iran are less active in Central Asia than in the Middle East, they are important actors in the region. Moreover, both powers are taking an active role in the events in Syria.

Iran has consistently supported the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, while Turkey has strongly advocated for its overthrow, expressing readiness to support a military intervention.

Their stronger engagement in the Syrian conflict would have a serious impact on the neighboring regions like Central Asia and South Caucasus.

Across Central Asia, the governments have demonstrated an extremely careful political attitude and rhetoric to the Syrian crisis taking into the account their own interests and balancing between China, Russia and the US. Compromises between key global and regional players are considered the best option. But the crisis looks more frozen than resolved.

The author is a visiting fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

This article first appeared in Global Times, a Chinese publication. Click here to go to the original.

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