The Middle East Factors in Central Asia and Transcaucasia
Central Asia and Transcaucasia is one of the world’s major Muslim-populated areas and is closely connected to the Middle East. Three major forces from the Middle East are actively seeking influence in the region: Iran, Turkey, and Islamic extremists represented by the Islamic State.
Central Asia and Transcaucasia are closely connected with the Middle East in terms of geography, history and culture. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, with the independence of countries in Central Asia and Transcaucasia, major powers of the Middle East began to intervene in the region’s affairs. By expanding the sphere of influence, they have become significant players in the region. In recent times, with the rise of the Islamic State, these forces from the Middle East have become more active and their influence in the region is on the increase, bringing subtle changes to regional situation and deserving more attention.
Middle East Intervention in Central Asia and Transcaucasia
Central Asia and Transcaucasia is one of the world’s major Muslimpopulated areas. It is closely connected to the Middle East, the birthplace of Islam. In recent years, the situation in the Middle East has become turbulent: the “Arab Spring,” Libya’s unrest, chaos in Yemen, the Syrian civil war, all these have not only led to the turmoil in the Middle East, but also put Central Asia and Transcaucasia on high alert. With the rise of the Islamic State in 2014, Central Asia and Transcaucasia became more susceptible to changes in the Middle East, unable to remain detached.
Currently, three major forces from the Middle East are actively seeking influence in the region: the Islamic extremists, represented by the “Islamic State;” Iran, which is gradually recovering from international sanctions after it reached an agreement on its nuclear program; and Turkey, whose relations with Russia are going through ups and downs.
Spillover of Islamic State
In 2014, the Islamic State emerged abruptly, taking much of Iraq and Syria and activating the extremist Islamic forces in Central Asia and Transcaucasia. Encouraged by the expansion of the Islamic State in the Middle East, extremists that were once dormant in the region have become active again, and a considerable number of extremists from the region have joined ISIS training camps. The International Crisis Group in a 2015 report estimated that about 2,000 to 4,000 people in Central Asia had been recruited by ISIS.1 The latest statistics from Kyrgyzstan’s National Security Council show that there are still about 600 Kyrgyz fighting for ISIS in Syria.2 It is notable that ISIS since its very inception had included Central Asia and Transcaucasia in the territory of its conceived Islamic Caliphate. In June 2014, the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-baghdadi declared the establishment of the “Wilayah Khorasan” (Khorasan Province) in his “state-founding speech,” which included Iran, Central Asia, South Asia and China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region — an area roughly equivalent to Central Asia in a broad sense. In early 2015, Baghdadi claimed that an amount of US$70 million had been invested to fund the opening up of a second battleground
With the rise of the Islamic State in 2014, Central Asia and Transcaucasia became more susceptible to changes in the Middle East, unable to remain detached.