Moscow Capital of the Middle East

Waiting for Donald Trump · Russia now occupies a pivotal position in the Middle Eastern political chessboard. Its military presence in Syria, the axis created with Iran and Turkey have made the Russians a required partner for all sides in the ongoing war. But Russia is also caught up in the conflicts between its allies and is waiting with some apprehension for Donald Trump to decide what his policies will be in the region.

The Kremlin.
Jan M, 11 août 2015.

“The Middle East : When Will Tomorrow Come?”: this was the pretty, almost poetical title of the gathering organised at the end of winter in Moscow by a think tank on international politics, the Valdai Club. The venue was a luxury hotel not far from the Kremlin and Red Square, where over a hundred guests from thirty countries gathered to debate the future of that region, torn by wars and other conflicts.

The participants were more varied than at the previous edition, with more delegates from Gulf countries. In attendance were people like Moshe Yaalon, former Israeli Minister of Defence, who explained that peace would depend on the creation of confessional States–Sunni, Chia, Alaouite (but certainly not Palestinian!), or the US general Paul Vallely, singing the praises of Donald Trump and alluding to his recent meeting in Paris with Marine Le Pen. There was also Ali Nasser Mohammed, former President of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South-Yemen), Nabil Fahmy, former Foreign Minister of Egypt, Amir Moussa, former Secretary General of the Arab League, as well as Ismaïl Sheik Ahmed, the UN General Secretary’s special envoy for Yemen. A leader of the Syrian opposition, Bassma Kodmani had announced attendance, but was kept away by the Geneva Negotiations. Also failing to appear was Hossein Mousavian, a former member of the Iranian Council of National Security, currently residing in the United States: because of Trump’s executive orders, he was worried he wouldn’t be allowed to re-enter the country.

Intellectuals, researchers, officials from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq or the USA all met together, with, of course, a large number of Russians: Mikhail Bogdanov, Deputy Foreign Minister in charge of the Arab world, Valentina Matviyenko, President of the Council of the Russian Federation (the upper chamber of Parliament) and a close friend of Vladimir Putin, and Vitaly Naumkin, head of the Institute of Oriental Studies, one of the conference organisers. The latter suddenly had to abandon the proceedings at the end of the first day to join the Russian delegation in Geneva for the negotiations on Syria. As for the European Union, it was conspicuous by its absence, as various speakers pointed out.

A Central Role on Burning Issues

Such a heterogeneous attendance confirms the fact that over the past few years, on account of their military successes in Syria, the Russians have come to occupy a central role in the Middle East, acknowledged by all parties, even those who condemn their support for Damascus. Russia is proud to maintain a dialogue with all the parties to all the conflicts in the region, for example acting as a mediator between Israel and the Hezbollah to keep their conflict over the Golan from heating up, as was confirmed by the meeting in Moscow on March 9th between Putin and Netanyahu.

Moscow has become one of the chief venues for negotiating the thorniest issues. It was there that Hamas and Fatah signed an agreement to establish a government of national unity at the end of January. In mid-February the Russian capital hosted the sixth conference on the Kurdish situation, involving a certain number of groups in the camp of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) : The Party of Democratic Union (PYD, Syria), the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK, Iran), the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP, Turkey) but also Goran and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (UPK), both rivals of the ruling party in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Democratic Party of Kurdistan (PDK), which was not in attendance.

At the beginning of March, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov received a visit from Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj, and yet Russia is on excellent terms with his chief adversary, General Khalifa Haftar.

What is behind this activism? What makes Moscow run? Fyodor Lukyanov, one of the brains behind the conference and one of the most respected Russian observers of international politics explained that his country’s objectives go beyond the regional context : “In the Middle East, Russia sees the most favourable context in which to develop a capital of prestige allowing it to be recognised as a world power. Despite its specificities, the Middle East is a key player in the reorganisation of the world.” Russia makes no attempt to hide its conviction that a “post-Western” world has begun to emerge and it wants to speed up this evolution.

“Working with everybody”

But this does not mean that “we are starting another ‘cold war,’ we are not trying to compete with the United States the way the USSR was,” as this Russian professor of international relations explained, “we do not want a second Yalta.” First of all, because the world is no longer bipolar, but multipolar, secondly because people here are aware of the limitations of “Russian power”, especially in the economic sphere. And finally because ideology is no longer the driving force it once was and, as Lukyanov and many Russian speakers repeated insistently, “for the years to come, instability is the name of the international game. No alliances can last, not even NATO.”

Donald Trump’s election was viewed benevolently in the Kremlin, and has increased that instability and those uncertainties. For the moment, the US President seems torn between the temptation of a rapprochement with Vladimir Putin, the anti-Russian tendencies of Congress, his own “war against terrorism” rhetoric and his knee-jerk hostility towards Iran. For now, the Kremlin is taking advantage of that weird transition in Washington, but is sending a clear message to the West, relayed by Valentina Matviyenko: “The Middle East is the front line in the world war against terrorism, an evil similar to fascism in the last century. To overcome it, we must set aside our differences.” And Bogdanov hammered home the point: “There must be no more forced democratisation, imposed from without, unrelated to local cultures.” But, he added, “we must work with everyone”, in Libya or Yemen, in Syria or Iraq, except, of course, transnational terrorist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaida. He might also have mentioned Afghanistan, where Moscow, worried about the implantation of ISIS, has had contact with Taliban factions which it sees as counterweights to international jihadism.

It is in the Syrian theatre that Moscow has known its most significant successes. However, its capacity to stabilise the situation there and lay the grounds for a political solution remains to be demonstrated. To achieve this, the Russians are relying on the triple alliance they have built with great difficulty, Iran-Turkey-Russia. As one Russian diplomat explained that alliance is “counter-intuitive. It is based on tactical calculations, but this doesn’t mean it won’t last. The short-term interests of the three countries are identical, for they all have troops on the ground and they want to find a solution. And they are keenly aware of the financial burden of a lasting stalemate.” In order to get a cease-fire in Syria, Moscow organised two meetings in Astana (Kazakhstan) in January and February 2017, between government representatives and envoys from the armed opposition, including Salafist groups like Ahrar Al-Cham which had up to then been described as “terrorist”. This compromise paved the way for a resumption at the end of February of political negotiations in Geneva between the regime and the various opposition forces.

Unpredictable Allies

But how do you juggle with the sometimes antagonistic positions of your allies? A draft constitution submitted by Moscow provides for a secular Syrian State, which is not to the liking of Iran, and does not mention the country’s Arab identity (an implicit recognition of the Kurdish population) which irritates both Ankara and the Arab nationalists. Nonetheless, the Moscow-Teheran axis seems more robust than the Moscow-Ankara axis. A reversal of alliances seems less likely in the case of the former — since the hoped-for detente with the US thanks to the nuclear agreement has failed to materialise — than the latter, since Moscow has not forgotten that Turkey is a member of NATO.

Another unpredictable ally is Bashar Al-Assad, even though it was Moscow’s intervention that has kept him alive politically. Alexander Aksenenok, former Russian ambassador in Algeria, an old hand at Middle-Eastern politics, made no bones about what he thought of the Syrian authorities. “The solution in Syria must be based on the Geneva press release of 30 June 20121 and the Security Council Resolution 2254 which provides for the creation of ‘an inclusive transitional governing body with full executive powers.’ Well, Damascus refuses, under various pretexts, to discuss that transition.” He expressed this point of view publicly in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, on 20 February 2017.

Finally, under pressure from Moscow, the fourth session of the Geneva negotiations, which came to an end on March 3rd, seems to have forced Damascus to accept the principles of a transition. This modest step forward was commended by the UN envoy Staffan de Mistura when announcing the resumption of discussions on March 23rd. As for Bashar Al-Assad’s personal future, Moscow feels it should be settled later, it would be up to the Syrians to make that decision. Are there divergent views on this matter between Teheran, where the Syrian President must be maintained in office at all costs, and Moscow, reputed to be more flexible? Or, as some Russian journalists tell us, differences of opinion between the Ministers of Defence and Foreign Affairs? It is hard to get any confirmation of these rumours.

The Future Lies with Whitehouse

Whatever the case, for Moscow, this is not an immediate issue, the future will be determined on the battlefield, where the situation is very unsettled. Despite its reverses, ISIS is still powerful, as is the branch of Al-Qaida, the Al-Nosra Front, now calling itself Fatah Al-Cham. Moreover, there are evident tensions on the ground between Turkey, the Syrian regime and Iran, tensions which Moscow is trying to defuse. One example is the situation around the town of Al-Bab which the Turkish troops deployed in Syria since August 2016 captured with their Syrian allies on February 23rd. They threatened to go on to take Mabij, fallen into the hands of the Syrian Democratic Forces, in which the PYD has a key role. Turkey’s aim was to prevent both the unification of the three districts of Syrian Kurdistan and to strike a blow at an organisation considered a mere branch of the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan (PKK), an enemy at least as dangerous as ISIS. Moscow, with the help of Washington, negotiated a compromise: the PYD evacuated some villages around Manbij, which were handed over to the Syrian regime.

Thus a buffer zone has been created between the Turks and their allies, on the one hand, and the Kurds on the other, with the Syrian army as peacekeeping force! But skirmishes are not to be ruled out, all the more so as Turkey has reasserted its intention to purge Manbij of its Kurdish fighters and insists on participating in the recapture of Raqqa, “capital” of ISIS. The meeting held in Antalya between Turkish, Russian and American military officers on March 7th was aimed at defining a common strategy. At the same time, we learned that for the first time the US had sent Marines into the area–where, besides the Syrians, troops from Iran, Turkey, Russia and America are already fighting side by side.

But can there be negotiations on the future of Syria “with only the non-Arab players, Iran and Turkey? Lukyanov wondered aloud. A question which is all the more justified as the Valdai conference heard sharp criticism from a number of Arab delegates aimed at Iran and its ‘expansionism.’ Even though Moscow did manage to convince Jordan to take part in the Astana negotiations—along with the United Arab Emirates2—the absence of Saudi Arabia weighed heavily on the proceedings. ‘We will need the United States to be able to include Arabia in these discussions,’ explained Senator Igor Morozov a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the upper chamber. ‘Otherwise, there is a danger of a resumption of hostilities, with Riyadh and Doha providing support for the armed organisations.’ Even more serious, according to this speaker, is the risk that the Trump administration might launch an attack against Iran, with Israel acting as surrogate. Such a choice would destroy any hope of an agreement in Syria and would stoke up the war on a vast scale all over the region, with the break-up of nations and exacerbation of religious quarrels. Despite their successes, the Russians are aware that the future will in part be decided in the White House. In short, no one knows when tomorrow will come to the Middle East.

1“Geneva Meeting Agrees Transition Plan to Syria Unity”, The Daily Telegraph, 30 June, 2012.

2The rapprochement between Moscow and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is noteworthy. In February, Sergey Chemezov, head of Rostec, the largest-Russian arms conglomerate, announced in a press conference at IDEX (International Defence Exhibition and Conference) in Abu Dhabi, that Rostec has made an agreement with the UAE Ministry of Defence to build a light-fighter plane of the fifth generation based on the Mig-29. Development is to begin in 2018, production seven or eight years later.