The EastMed from Below: Why Low Geopolitics Matter

One of the paradoxes of geopolitics in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East regions is that, despite their inherent complexity, they are often interpreted through too simplistic explanations to understand the dynamics of regional instability and define the security challenges (“war for oil”, “Crusades”, “Jihadist war”, “war against terrorism” etc.) Nevertheless, as the result of the dramatic chain events following the war in Iraq and the so- called “Arab Spring”, broader international audiences have been gradually becoming more acquainted with the dangers stemming from the fragmented social fabric of the region. Regional complexity and the existence of sub-state systems of interest mean that focusing exclusively on “high geopolitics” or international diplomacy is not enough to understand the deep currents of change flowing across the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean without developing a deeper understanding of the security drivers of indigenous actors. For this reason, it is vital to include the “internal realities” and peculiarities of local actors into any analytical frame seeking to explain and understand geopolitical change in the region.

First, state sovereignty in the region has ceased to be taken for granted; geographical boundaries and areas of jurisdiction are increasingly contested, and conflicts evolve on at least three intersecting levels: national, transnational, and international. As a result, geopolitical orders change as the historic blocs whose commitments are central to them are replaced or reformulated around new commitments and strategies. In fact, post-imperial borders have since the early 20th century shaped rigid perceptions of jurisdictional landscape in the region. Borders designated from afresh the morphological and anthropological nature and meaning of territory and for decades boundaries outlined the juridical space and sphere of influence that represented the line of physical contact between people and authorities and naturally afforded opportunities for cooperation and discord. The established function of nation-state borders has growingly come to impose the limits of territoriality, denote sovereignty over people and land, and represent a limit to state action. Yet this pattern of geospatial division from “above”, and the ways it was misused, needs to be re-examined as it has proven fiercely problematic for the region and its people alike, failing to resolve the internal security dilemmas and instil trust.

Although border settlements rarely postulate an ideal coincidence between place and culture, boundaries are usually accepted as perimeters of discrete cultural entities, impeccably homogeneous internally and neatly dissimilar externally. However, borders in the Middle East region barely delimitate natural or self-evident differences between separate ethnographic landscapes, but define zones variously demarcating separation or interaction between trans- border realities and spaces. Today, the Middle East as a whole is a region in which boundaries on landscapes steer up cross-border mobility, induced by vital local and national inter- dependencies within an often-contested territorial environment. In this manner, borders have been instrumental in turning up culturally, religiously and politically interconnected landscapes into fragmented and oppressive spheres of authority, sowing up the seeds of discord.

From a macro-geopolitical point of view, the Eastern Mediterranean region constitutes a “borderland region” itself. As such, it could be investigated as a transition area or a strategic crossroads, or even a contact zone blending the Orient with the Occidental. But, for a deeper understanding of system dynamics and for defining the security trends in the region one must go beyond the epiphenomenal state-system relations and “national strategies” and focus more on the ‘low geopolitical’ perspective. These lower perspectives are intrinsically geospatial, focusing on the delicate ethno-political and religious synthesis and balance in the region as reflected on the nature of cross-border affiliations and interests.

Second, the developing political contestations and the ensuing destabilization and overthrow of established regimes have exposed some interesting albeit multifarious interlinkages reflected on the theatres of conflict in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. The fluidity caused by the Arab Spring domino has led to the grouping and spreading of indigenous heterogeneous forces beyond formal borders, activating a distinct clash of interests and leading up to the constellation of newly emerging power-blocks and alliances as a result of the overlapping security contestations between revisionist and status quo actors. Initially, the revival and mobilization of interethnic affiliations along the Turkey-Syria-Iraq axis exposed the interconnectedness and dormant dynamics in the region, changing the way in which the region has traditionally been viewed and examined by policymakers.

Dominant transnational dichotomies, such as secularism vs political Islam, Sunni vs Shia, Christianity vs Islam, and critical minority/majority contestations shape current security perceptions and define the role of influential actors and alliances across the region. Cleavages have become politically divisive due to the reconfiguration of power-relations and the triggering of counter-reactions, and because of the emergence of novel security notions, which are partly inspired by a deliberate instrumentalization of “otherness” and the use of “proxies” by international powers. This ongoing security transition has exposed not only the transnational nature of dependencies and the cross-border character of activities in the region, posing questions as to the intrinsic challenge of democratic state-formation and ethnic accommodation in the region – but it has also nurtured a drastic, yet still fluid rearrangement of international and regional power politics. Regional state and sub-state leaderships feel the need of positioning themselves in this rivalry nexus in one way or another.

Third, security interests and confrontations in the region cut through horizontally; all states in the region face internal power contestations, while alliances are formed not only between states, but also across sub-state actors in the region. This inevitably makes it very difficult for states to decide with whom and on what for to align. Developments on the lower strands of the geopolitical (dis)order offer a perspective of the upcoming forces shaping the region, the pressures and opportunities that may arise and the risk-measures required to counter these with a view of preventing the emergence of hegemony, control, and dependence. The Eastmed region is an important security sub-system in flux; in search of order and equilibrium. Neither order in such a complex area nor any kind of regional equilibrium could ever be successfully promoted from “above” without mapping, understanding, accommodating, and stabilizing the ‘lower geopolitical’ landscape.

Dr. Pavlos I. Koktsidis
Adj. Lecturer, Department of Social & Political Sciences University of Cyprus