Syria and Iraq: Untying the Gordian knot

27.02.2017

The third session of the annual Valdai Club Middle East conference, titled "Syria and Iraq: untying the Gordian knot" was attended by Iraq's former Human Rights Minister (2004-2005), Bakhtiar Amir, Tehran University professor Mohammad Marandi,Turkish political analyst Hasan Selim Ozertem, former Secretary-General of the Arab League (2001-2011) and Egyptian Foreign minister (1991-2001) Amr Moussa. Vitaly Naumkin,Academic Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies moderated the session.

Naumkin drew attention to the important role of Egypt, Syria and Iraq in the Middle East life and expressed confidence they will soon return as significant actors on the world stage.

Amr Moussa also stressed the importance of Iraq and Syria in the formation of a Middle East and said that they cannot be seen as separate from the rest of the Arab world. According to Musa, the key to progress in the Middle East is a solution to the Palestinian issue. There is a necessity of a new regional order for the 21st century, an era when social networks are playing an increasingly important role and the Middle East is changing rapidly. Musa believes that the Arab world needs to find common ground with Israel for constructive talks on the Palestinian issue and to minimize the impact of negative factors. Respecting the interests of the Palestinian Authority and of its right to exist is crucial, according to Musa.

Musa also expressed concern about a hypothetical deal between the US and Russia on Syria's disintegration, as well as the fact that Israel could enter the deal. He said that these foreign policy moves will be regarded as destructive in the Arab world and worsen attitudes toward Russia's foreign policy.

Bakhtiar Amin recalled the historically good relations between Russia and Kurds, and said that he is pleased with the talks in Astana, as well as a new Syrian Constitution project. He also stressed that the Syrian government should represent the interests of all peoples and ethnic groups living on Syrian territory, not just the Arab population. In Iraq, it is necessary to revise the attitude toward Kurds and other ethnic and religious minorities. Amin drew attention to the diversification of the Arab world, which today can be subdivided into North African republics, where the population gravitates toward Europe, and the eastern part of the region, which gravitates toward South Asia.

He also deplored the indifference of Middle Eastern states toward the oppression and persecution of the Kurds. Amin said that Syria should be a decentralized country with a federal system in which there is no place to oppression and ethnic cleansing. At the same time, he considers it necessary to support Barzani against ISIS and for the Iraqi government to be present in the Geneva and Astana talks.

Mohammad Marandi identified two causes of instability in the Middle East: what is essentially a policy of apartheid in Palestine by Israel, and the problem of extremism. In the context of the second problem Marandi said that the ideology of terrorist groups not associated with any brand of Islam, and is the most established outside Wahhabi cells. Citing Wikileaks, Marandi said the United States took part in the financing ISIS, while in the 1980s it funded Jihadists in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Such a policy will inevitably lead to a destabilization of the situation.

Marandi added that despite the general instability and explosive Middle East, namely Iran manages to remain the only country in the Persian Gulf to distance itself from these issues. Marandi also disagreed with the accusations of Iran fomenting ethnic hatred, recalling that a large number of Kurdish refugees were freely admitted into Iran.

Marandi said that the United States and other Western countries are responsible for the current state of Syria because of their support for extremist organizations. According to Marandi, no country in the Arab world is interested in the dismemberment and collapse of Syria, and that only Israel is interested in it. Finally, the return of Egypt to the foreign policy arena in the Middle East as a representative of the moderate forces should also play a positive role in the establishment of stability in the region.

Hasan Selim Ozertem said that he considers a ceasefire the key factor to resolving Syrian conflict. It would not allow players to use local and regional external factors to fight each other but, on the contrary, would provide an opportunity to sit down at the negotiating table. It is a comprehensive approach to dialogue that will consolidate positions, as is the case at the talks in Astana. Ozertem urged caution in the implementing and carrying out compromises, and to remember to account for possible differences in the interpretations of the same concepts.

Ozertem added that the practice of funding terrorist groups should be discontinued. Looking to the near future, it is necessary to reflect on the creation of free trade zones and providing Syria and Iraq with food loans after the inevitable victory over ISIS. Ozertem also said that it is necessary to treat the process of cleansing of territories from ISIS with extreme caution, and to begin to create the appropriate roadmaps.

During the question and answer portion of the session, experts touched on the issue of relations between Iran and Yemen, respect for human rights and freedoms in regard to the Kurds in the Iraqi territories, Turkey and Syria, as well as the question of differences in the foreign policy positions of Iran and Turkey.

 

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