The Middle East Concert: How to Prevent the Melody from Sounding Like Chaos
Valdai Discussion Club Conference Hall, Bolshaya Tatarskaya 42, Moscow, Russia
List of speakers

The Middle East has recently become a gravity field that pulls conflicts towards it, involving both regional states and the global powers. The pressing question is how to stop that conflict-stricken melody and start playing a melody of cooperation. On May 21, 2018, the Valdai Club hosted an expert discussion on the Middle East agenda. The meeting, titled “Russia in the Middle East: The Polyphonic Harmony,” was timed to coincide with the release of the same name report on political processes and balance of power in this dynamically developing, but still very volatile region.

The Middle East remains in the focus of many politicians, experts and journalists with the situation there changing nearly every day. Opening the discussion, Fyodor Lukyanov, the Valdai Club Research Director, quipped that everyone must be already bored with the local issues, which, nevertheless, keep gaining traction. The reason for that is that the region is not only struggling with its internal problems, but also keeps attracting external participants, like a gravity field, and remains in the center of attention.

As Vitaly Naumkin, Academic Director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies, mentioned, the Middle East has turned into not only a global political node, but also into a dynamically changing environment, with changes occurring nearly every day. Due to that, some of the processes taking place locally can affect other developments in the world, and the relationships between Russia, the US and Europe could be a good example. Vitaly Naumkin highly appreciated the Middle East Conference hosted by the Valdai Club on February 19-20, 2018, which was aimed at making regional conflicting parties negotiate possible decisions on the issues of mutual concern. He also explained the meaning of the report’s title: the Middle East situation is complex and no one can characterize the circumstances there as simply good or bad: the entire range of often conflicting interests should be taken into account. Finally, according to Naumkin, despite the engagement of the global powers, the future of the Middle East depends on the actions which the region should take on its own.

Irina Zvyagelskaya, Chief Research Fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies, agreed with Vitaly Naumkin, saying that the influence of the Middle East countries on the global players has grown significantly and will likely continue to grow. This way Russia may find itself in a challenging position, trying to maintain dialogue with a number of regional actors claiming different values and interests. The problem is that some of the Middle Eastern states tend to use Russia’s involvement in their own interests. Such double-dealing makes it rather hard for Russia to take certain actions, particularly when talking about possible ways out of the Middle Eastern conflict, a decision that has to be made eventually. Referring to the report’s title, Zvyagelskaya mentioned that “polyphony” should not be confused with “harmony.” “Some play their parts well, others worse. But it still can be a melody. Another thing is that we may not want to see those days when everyone will be playing something nobody would be able to listen to”, she said.

While talking about Russia’s presence in Syria, Vasily Kuznetsov, Head of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies, said that there is no way for Russia to repeat mistakes of the United States: its participation in the regional processes has become too costly, but it has no option of leaving with dignity. Russia has achieved success in the military and political spheres, but now it should capitalize on it, building cooperation with regional actors at the economic and humanitarian levels. The times of straightforward politics have gone, and now everyone must be able to comprehend that the Middle East is changing, which requires new ways of interaction with the region.

Despite the changes that tend to be more and more important, for example the United States’ withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, there is a plenty of problems coming from the past and still unsolved. According to Vitaly Naumkin, these problems include the Palestinian question, recently boosted by the unparalleled US-Israeli cooperation, and the Kurdish issue, which can only be handled by negotiations between the Kurds and the governments of their home countries.

The Syrian issue was predictably in the focus of the discussion. According to Vitaly Naumkin, Russia is planning to switch its activities in supporting Syria: more has to be done for the political settlement, as well as for the economic recovery – one of the major points being ignored by the Western countries. Russia has already managed to do a lot in this area: Aleppo and western parts of Syria are being rebuilt, much work has been done to attract private investments and to develop a blueprint for constitutional reform

At the same time, Russia is not pushing anyone to accept its plan and make it a roadmap to be strictly followed. The idea is to prompt Damascus to act its own way in handling its problems, and they should definitely go for it. According to Naumkin, such smooth transition reflects the dynamism of the current situation, which should not be misunderstood by the regional actors and must be taken into consideration, if they wish to play their own part in the Middle Eastern orchestra. And Russia is going to continue its policy of engaging more and more international actors for the early recovery of Syria.