The Valdai Discussion Club — the main expert discussion platform in Russia — last week held its annual conference on the Middle East. It was the most representative Middle Eastern Valdai in history, as it was attended by two foreign ministers (Russia’s Sergey Lavrov and Iran’s Javad Zarif), the deputy foreign ministers of some Middle Eastern countries, former top-level politicians and leading experts and advisers from all over the globe.
The conference, which was titled “Russia in the Middle East: Playing on all Fields,” focused on the major regional conflict knots like Syria, Palestine and Israel, Libya, Yemen, and Iran. Russia’s role in the settlement of these crises was discussed but was not the cornerstone of the conference.
The conclusions that can be made following the two days of debate are as follows: Russia is standing strong on its positions and is serious about its intention to settle the Syrian conflict through international institutions, alongside supportive formats like the Astana process and the Sochi congress. But Moscow is deeply concerned by the activities of the US in Syria. Lavrov, answering a question on what more Russia can do to improve the current situation, said it is not about what Russia can do but what the US should not. There is a high level of mistrust between Moscow and Washington that threatens the whole settlement process in Syria.
Russia initially blocked the United Nations Security Council resolution on a ceasefire in Ghouta, mostly because of its doubts about the intentions of the US and its allies. Russia also stood firm on the exclusion of terrorist factions, such as Al-Qaeda and Faylaq Al-Rahman, from the ceasefire. The tendency to present Al-Qaeda-linked groups as merely militants or rebels started last month and has gained momentum.
What does provide hope for the region’s future — and underlines Russia’s potential as a negotiator for peace — is that every year Valdai gathers in one hall representatives from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, Palestine, Turkey, the Kurdish community, the US and others, and encourages them to talk openly.
Russia is calling on the international community to work together on the Syrian conflict settlement. It will work closely on the establishment of the constitutional committee that was approved in Sochi. But it has become clear Russia will face severe problems with the Assad regime, as the declaration approved at the conference was modified by Syria — to remove the paragraph on the UN’s dominant role — with no coordination. The speech by Bashar Assad’s media adviser Bouthaina Shaaban made everyone feel that Damascus is far from understanding the real situation and is absolutely unwilling to negotiate. Russia is facing a series of problems in dealing with Damascus and this will be the main challenge to its bid to establish a constitutional committee with the UN’s support.
Meanwhile, Zarif called for peace talks and the establishment of a regional security system: A mechanism that would allow the region to openly discuss its challenges. Avoiding the topic of Tehran’s expansionist policies in the region, Zarif highlighted Iran’s readiness to cooperate and negotiate. Iran slammed Israel for its policies, backed by the US, which was not surprising, but the speeches by Israeli representatives really were different.
This can be summed up by one passage by former Israeli Foreign Minister Dore Gold, who summed up his speech regarding Israeli support for an independent Kurdistan by stating that the occupied Golan Heights are and will remain Israeli territory. Parrying the statement that such declarations violate international law, he answered that territories annexed following a war of aggression are illegal, but territories annexed as a result of a war of self-defense are a totally different story. Israel, blindly backed by the US, is getting tougher and more impudent and that will, sooner or later, have severe consequences for the regional powers. While Palestinian representatives are giving strong signals that greater Israeli oppression will only produce greater resistance, what is typical for both sides is a total unwillingness to listen to one other.
The Yemeni and Libyan conflicts have stalled. We can point to the problems and even draw ideal world solutions, but there is no chance we will succeed in implementing any of them. Russia is trying to facilitate a peace settlement in Libya after being asked by the Libyans to be more involved in the conflict, but Yemen is not its playground. On Libya, there is intense cooperation between global powers, but Yemen seems to be a forgotten war that nobody cares much about.
The speeches at the conference seem to suggest relations are degrading toward further escalations and confrontations. The problem in all these cases is like so much in the region: We are all speaking but not talking. We hear but do not listen. The Middle East is ruled by fear and mistrust and that engenders new phobias and misleads individual players and their global allies. But what does provide hope for the region’s future — and underlines Russia’s potential as a negotiator for peace — is that every year Valdai gathers in one hall representatives from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, Palestine, Turkey, the Kurdish community, the US and others, and encourages them to talk openly.
Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub). Twitter: @politblogme