On Tuesday, February 19, 2019, the eighth Valdai Discussion Club Middle East Conference, titled “Middle East: New Stage, Old Problems?” commenced in Moscow. The plenary session was attended by high-ranking diplomats from Russia and countries in the region, who presented their visions of the processes taking place in and around the Middle East.
The Middle East is at the center of world politics, and the events affecting the region can be used to evaluate the dynamics of international relations throughout the world. It’s fitting that here the outlines of a new multi-polar world emerge, where rivalry coexists with cooperation, and where regional and global players are forced to take each other’s interests into account. One of the important factors affecting the development of the situation is the return of Russia, marked by its successful operation to eliminate hotbeds of terrorism in Syria. This was asserted by several participants of the plenary session of the Valdai Club’s Middle East Conference, titled “Russia’s Interests in the Middle East and Combatting Radicalism on the New Stage.”
In addition to international Middle East experts, a number of high-ranking representatives from Russia and the countries of the region participated in the plenary session. Mikhail Bogdanov, Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, highlighted the official position of Moscow regarding the situation in the Middle East. He read a welcome message from Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and added his own comments. According to Bogdanov, thanks to the resilience of the Syrian people as well as the operations of the Russian Aerospace Forces in Syria and the troops of other states sent there at the behest of the country’s legitimate government, the radicals suffered a crushing defeat and new conditions have been established for the fight against terrorism. He said that Russia is ready to continue to work with all of the countries in the region, as well as with the United States, in order to completely eliminate the terrorist threat. Unfortunately, this threat remains: there are prerequisites for the destabilization of the situation in Iraq, where extremists rely on inciting the Sunni-Shiite conflict. The inflow of Middle Eastern terrorists to Afghanistan continues, where ISIS militants penetrate through neighboring countries. To counter this threat, it is necessary to work together, but the key to success, Bogdanov said, is that the West must abandon the use of terrorist groups in pursuing its tactical interests.
Western countries – primarily the United States – continue to play an important role in Middle East politics; sometimes this role can be characterized as negative or even destructive. This idea was a common theme touched upon in the speeches of speakers from Middle Eastern countries. However, this is not surprising, since the states they represent are in varying degrees of confrontation with the United States and have experienced either US sanctions or military interventions at the hand of the US and its allies.
According to Bouthaina Shaaban, a Syrian cabinet minister and political and media advisor to the president, the terrorism which her country is fighting is not a natural disaster, but the result of planned activity. “The United States conducts a subversive policy in our country. Americans are trying with all their might to destroy our country, to undermine its infrastructure,” she said. Our hopes are connected with the real fight against terrorism, which is conducted by genuine friends of those countries that suffer from it. Russia supports the Syrian people, helps the Syrian army. For this reason, what happened in Libya and Afghanistan will not happen in Syria. ”
US actions in the Middle East, especially under the Trump administration, are characterized by a simplified understanding of the situation in the region, said Seyed Kazem Sajjadpour, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and President of the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS). For Trump, Tehran is the source of all problems in the Middle East, and this position is extremely appealing to such opponents of Iran as Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But the reality is much more complicated. “Iran is part of the solution of all problems in the region, and it is not the problem itself,” Sajjadpour emphasized. “Iran is just a player which, just like everyone else, is worried about its safety.”
In the Middle East, the transformation processes are occurring both at the level of individual countries – in the social, economic and political spheres – as well as at the regional level. The role of regional players is changing – they are increasingly ready to defend their national interests – as well as the role of global players, including Russia, the Iranian diplomat said. Such events as the Valdai Club’s Middle East Conference provide a framework to analyze complex transformation processes, serving as a useful platform to work out forecasts and to develop timely responses to emerging challenges, he added.
Abdulkarim Hashim Mostafa, Chief of Staff and Advisor to the Prime Minister of Iraq, spoke about the importance of sovereignty and national interests. The Iraqi people, he said, are grateful to the Western countries who helped topple the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein. Iraqis, however, were against the occupation, which eventually led to rampant terrorism. Iraq, Mostafa said, is not in the wake of US policy and is building good-neighborhood relations with both American allies and countries that are affected by Washington’s sanctions, such as Iran or Syria.
Touching upon the origins of radicalism in the Middle East, Mohamed Elbadri, Assistant Foreign Minister of Egypt for Arab Affairs, said that ISIS is "a political illness that should not have materialized." Why did this still happen? According to him, there are two reasons: the weakening of the state and foreign interventions. Elbadri described with a quote from Shakespeare the policy of regime change, which is carried out by Western countries: “Murder in healing wounds”. Many Middle Eastern states have to deal with the consequences of this “murder” and suffer from permanent instability and extremism.
In his closing remarks, Fyodor Lukyanov, Research director of the Valdai Discussion Club, drew the attention of the audience to how the discourse had transformed over the fifteen years of the Club’s existence: if in the mid-2000s people discussed a reduction in the role of the state or even its fading away, today, after the chaotic “Arab Spring,” a strong state is more than required. This concerns not only the Middle East, but also other countries, which once again confirms the point that this particular region serves as a model for the political and social processes happening around the world.