Russian President Putain said, “We are ready to help Syria in case of foreign military attacks”.
Russian diplomacy aims to settle conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, and has a roadmap for specific measures to contain terrorism in the region, for which it is seeking international blessing and a mandate from the U.N. Security Council to lead on these issues. The time of rivalry between Moscow and Washington, over who leads in the Middle East, is over.
At one point, the two countries came together to jointly sponsor the Middle East peace process, and later established the Quartet, which also included the U.N. and the EU in addition to the United States and Russia. The Quartet, however, proved to be little more than an empty façade.
United States steps back…
Today, in light of the clear U.S. withdrawal from the daily management of the Middle East’s crises and Washington’s reduced interest in playing any leading role on these issues, Moscow has found an opportunity to take charge and fill the vacuum, with a view to restore Russia’s leading position in the entire Middle East. The approach chosen by the Russian leadership is interesting, particularly since the objectives of Russia’s policies have been called into question.
There is a view that holds that U.S. diplomacy is indifferent to any Russian gains in the Middle East, which the United States has arguably decided to forsake, with the exception of what its alliance with Israel requires. This view holds that the United States has decided to do so following the discovery of large reserves of oil in its territories, and its decision to pivot east towards China and its neighbors.
The other view believes the United States has provisionally stepped back from its leadership position to relieve itself of blame and responsibility, and at the same time implicate Russia in crises, bloody conflicts, and the quagmires of civil, religious, and sectarian wars.
… And Russia steps forward
Regardless of which view is correct, Russia seems determined to fight several battles across the Middle East. Some of the battles intend to restore Russia’s prestige and vindicate Moscow against having been excluded and insulted – as Moscow believes – in the wake of the Arab Spring. Others are to implement its vision for the Middle East and its influence and interests there.
In a concept note entitled “Maintenance of International Peace and Security: Settlement of Conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa and Countering the Terrorist Threat in the Region,” Russia has told U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon it intends to convene a session for the Security Council at the level of ministers on Sept. 30.
According to the Russian document, submitted by Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, the aim of the ministerial session to be chaired by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is to adopt a presidential Security Council statement that stresses the urgent need to take action to resolve and prevent conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, and identify possible additional steps to address terrorist threats in the region.
The Russian approach is essentially based on linking conflicts in the Middle East to terrorism.
The issues mentioned by the Russian document begin with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The Russian document points out that failure to reach a solution to the conflict boosts radicalization in the Arab street, and creates favorable conditions for the spread of terrorist ideas.
The roots of the current tragedy in Iraq, according to the Russian paper, go back to the US invasion in 2003. Those events “have brought the country to a split-nation situation with parts of its territory becoming strongholds of international terrorism, and have given rise to an extremely dangerous trend of inter-religious confrontation.” What is urgently needed, according to the document, are “consistent collective efforts by the international community supported by the Iraqi government in combating ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other groups associated with them to eliminate the challenge of terrorism.”
Syria, Libya and Yemen
The conflict in Syria, according to the Russian vision, is in turn a conflict against terrorism, because the bloody conflict has created fertile ground for the “caliphate” to establish itself in parts of the country. What is needed, according to the Russian approach, is a political solution based on the Geneva communique, as well as through the joining of efforts of Syrian parties and regional and international community “to achieve the objective of addressing the large-scale terrorist threat on the basis of rejection of double standards and respect for the principle of sovereignty of states.”
Libya continues to suffer from the repercussions of what happened in 2011, always according to the Russian document, in reference to the NATO intervention in the country that deposed the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. The problem in Libya today, argues the paper, is linked to terrorism, and the solution requires establishing a national consensus government with adequate international support to enable the army and security structures to repel the escalating terrorist threat.
Meanwhile, again according to the Russian paper, there has been a serious deterioration of the situation in Yemen, requiring an urgent cease-fire and a political process under the UN auspices, as well as prompt steps to improve the humanitarian situation stemming from the need to address the terrorist threat in that country.
Yet Moscow did not propose to bear alone the burden of fighting terrorism in the Middle East. Nor does Moscow present itself as the sole sponsor for solutions to conflicts. It is saying there is a need for “a comprehensive analysis of the nature of conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, to set directions for a collective work on the basis of the UN Charter.”
Russia, as stated in the Russian paper, believes that the Security Council must play the key role in coordinating collective approaches, and should determine ways to address the full range of security-related challenges in the Middle East and North Africa. The paper spoke about modern realities that call for a comprehensive approach to preventing conflicts, including measures to eliminate the root causes of conflicts. It also called for a common understanding of the causes of grave security crises in the region and the political factors aggravating the crisis.
As per the Russian vision, interference into domestic affairs of sovereign states, use of force without the authorization by the U.N. Security Council, transfers of arms to non-state actors adherent to radical ideology, aggravate the situation in the region and raise the level of terrorist risks.
Everything in Moscow’s eyes should therefore be focused on fighting terrorism by non-state actors but not terrorism of any other kind. Governments are exempt from this charge of terrorism in the name of sovereignty, and must remain above accountability for the same reason, according to Russia. Russia thus believes that the collective efforts of the international community must focus first on supporting legitimate governments in their war with terrorism on their territories, without any double standards.
According to Moscow’s vision and the new dialogue it is calling through the Security Council, the talks must analyze conflicts in the Middle East and their evolution in the wake of the Arab Spring. This moment marks the rise of Islamist movements, with Western support, as Moscow believes.
Not long ago, Russia obstructed the Security Council, preventing it from tackling the Syrian crisis. From the outset, Russia clung to Bashar al-Assad, using the veto four times with its strategic ally China. The other countries of the BRICS group, namely India, Brazil, and South Africa, adopted the same policy.
Practically speaking, Moscow aborted the Geneva process mainly because it called for establishing a transitional governing body with executive powers, including security powers.
Today, Russia wants to activate the role of the Security Council, but on the basis it has chosen. Practically, Moscow wants to lead with Security Council authorization, after the United States stepped down from leading, and appears now willing to tacitly support Russia in the lead.
Moscow does not conceal its support for the Assad regime. In fact, it protests using the term the “regime” instead of the “government” of President Bashar al-Assad. Russia does not conceal that it has supplied Syria with weapons and military equipment, and today, in response to reports saying Russian forces have deployed to Syria, it says it has not made that decision “yet.”
Russia has not changed its position. What is new is that it is trying to combine two tasks: Preserving the regime in Damascus, including keeping Assad in power for the time being, and the military support this requires; and sponsoring a new political approach based on partnership with Syrian and regional actors in the war on terrorism, first and foremost.
Those who have changed their stance are the Western powers, particularly Security Council members such as the United States, Britain, and France, although some still say they want Assad to step down. What is new on their front is that they seem willing to accept the creative arrangements that combine the commitment of Moscow, Iran, and China to Assad, and the Western position which says – gently – that it wants Assad to step down at the right time.
Washington’s ‘creative chaos’
Washington adopted “creative chaos” to bring about change in the Middle East and North Africa. And Russia is now taking advantage of the West’s interest in creative understanding and arrangements.
Europe is working on “creative” solutions to the threats to it and its security – as it believes – resulting from the influx of thousands of refugees. Europe has forgotten its role in Libya, when it rushed to invade, leaving hundreds of thousands of casualties and opening the country to terrorism, while refusing to lift the arms embargo on the legitimate government to repel the terrorist threat.
Europe and the United States did not seriously challenge the obstructionism of Russia and China on Syria, and their decision to refrain from engaging contributed to the human tragedy there. Washington decided that Syria is not a priority and focused on reaching an agreement with Iran instead, refusing to use the tools it has to influence the regime and Tehran’s support for it.
Now, thousands of displaced persons and refugees are crossing the borders to Europe, which has been forced to receive them, while the United States refuses to do the same, fearing terrorism.
That terrorism, which will be a joint priority for the United States and Russia, is their way of reducing the conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. The difference is that Russia has a project and roadmap outlying its goals in the region, while Washington’s project is to be absent and to refrain from engaging.
Whether it is furtherance or implication, Moscow believes that Washington approves its leadership position. Russia is prepared to exploit every opportunity to restore its prestige, in the aftermath of what it sees as the insult of the Arab Spring by design from Washington.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women’s Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University’s Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women’s Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on Sept. 11, 2015 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.