The Changing World Order and the Middle East: A Stormy Passage

27.02.2017

The Sixth annual Valdai Discussion Club conference on the Middle East, titled “When Will Tomorrow Come?", carried out in partnership with the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies, was opened by Andrey Bystritskiy, Chairman of the Board of the Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club. He noted the dynamics of change and transformation in the positions of the Middle East states and mentioned the role and impact of Brexit and the results of the United States presidential election on the international community’s relations with the Middle East region.

Vitaly Naumkin, Academic Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies, said that the region is now going through its toughest trials and tests of strength and wondered about what the future holds for the Middle East. At the same time he expressed the hope that the region eventually will overcome all difficulties.

The floor was then given to Valentina Matvienko, Chairman of the Federation Council of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation. She began by noting the historical parallels between regions that were the detonators of international conflicts and wars. The Balkans were a "powder keg" of WWI, Germany of WWII, while today, the zone of increased danger to international stability is the Middle East. Throughout history, this was the region that has been the subject of attacks by the major powers. Interventions from outside, such as the US invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring have lead to destabilization and chaos.

Matvienko also said that the peoples of the Middle East deserve peace and stability in the region, as well as the right to determine their future. Russia, as one of the key players, supports and promotes the establishment of social justice and fundamental freedoms in the region. The main aspect in the fight against the crisis in the region is the need to unite in the fight against international terrorism, which she called the most dangerous threat to civilization since the Second World War. The creation of a united front of anti-terrorist forces is the key to prosperity and stability in the Middle East.

According to Matvienko, progress in Syria is becoming apparent. Many families have returned home, the territory of the country, including Aleppo, is being systematically liberated from terrorists, the international community is providing medical assistance to the Syrian population. Matvienko added that the trend toward peaceful resolution of conflicts in the region is in the interest of the entire international community, and that this is only possible within the framework of a real military-political cooperation between Russia and the United States. A number of negotiations between representatives of Russian and the US give hope for a positive result of such cooperation.

Matvienko concluded by stressing that the requirement of Assad leaving power is unacceptable because only the Syrian people have the right to decide on this issue, and only through democratic means. She added that Russia does not seek to occupy a dominant position in the Middle East, but only wants to lead the region on a sustainable path of development.

The first session, titled “The changing world order and the Middle East: A stormy passage" included speakers Michael Bogdanov, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation; Ragida Dergham, Founder and Executive Chairman of the Beirut Institute; author Jamal Khashoggi; Steven Heydeman, Chair in Middle East Studies, Smith College. During the session, Heydemann presented the position of Daniel Kurtzer, US Ambassador to Egypt (1997-2001) and Israel (2001-2005), a professor of Middle East policy studies at Princeton University, who prepared a thesis, but was unable to attend. Valdai Club Academic Director Fyodor Lukyanov moderated the session.

Opening the session, Lukyanov noted that the Middle East now appears slightly different than usual in the global context. According to Lukyanov, the world has become used to the fact that the Middle East is a special zone of instability, but in today's realities the rest of the world is trying to "catch up" with the region when it comes to unpredictability, and a shining example of the ambiguous policy is the new US administration. Therefore, considering the Middle East to be apart from the global context is meaningless and impractical, and today it is important not to allow developments in the region to become a miniature version of what is happening in the rest of the world.

Mikhail Bogdanov began with the statement that the determining factor in the world politics is security. The situation in the Middle East is a clear example of propagation and application of measures that do not correspond to the cultural diversity of the region. He also stressed that one of the main problems of the region and the world is the international terrorism, and the victory over it is possible only through global cooperation. The confirmation of the importance of the problem was a telephone conversation between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, who confirmed a priority of this challenge, as well as the agreement between Russia and the Syrian authorities regarding the fight against terrorism. Bogdanov noted the importance of the decision on the cessation of hostilities, adopted by Russia, Turkey and Iran. Moreover, he mentioned the importance of negotiations of joint task force on Syria in Astana and the possibilities of other formats of negotiations.

Bogdanov pointed to the need to take Libya out from the crisis and return the status of a strong player in the international arena. The resolution of the Libyan problem Bogdanov sees primarily in taking into account the opinions of all social groups, as well as the undesirability and impossibility to impose any foreign political constructions. Bogdanov also mentioned crisis in Yemen, where the solution it is also possible exclusively by peaceful means through the restoration of the political process and assistance of the United Nations. According to Bogdanov, Russia supports the Government of Iraq in securing the country's territorial integrity. He expressed his belief that the terrorists are to be defeated in Iraq. An important aspect to maintain stability in the country, according to Bogdanov, is to prevent the uncoordinated presence of foreign military forces on the territory of Iraq. He concluded, that the solution of the Middle East problems is only possible by joint efforts of the world community.

In turn, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi mentioned major challenges that influenced the development of the Middle East crisis: 1) Change of role of Russia in the region, particularly in Syria. Now Russia, according to Khashoggi, is not only a peacemaker, but also a mediator in the talks with the Syrian opposition. In this context the creation of a transitional government in Syria will be a test for Russia, as it will mean withdrawal of Bashar al-Assad; 2) Donald Trump's coming to power in the USA does not allow to understand clearly what is happening in that country today. Nevertheless, some of his promises, such as the cessation of Iran's hegemony in the region, are encouraging. According to Khashoggi, it is still not obvious which of the Middle Eastern states will be able to draw Trump on its side: Turkey or Saudi Arabia. Khashoggi welcomes Trump's policy in Syria. The return of stability in the region is necessary even in case of a temporary return of autocratic regimes. Now, as we can talk about ISIS as an ordinary terrorist organization and not as a "state", the need to destroy it still remains. Finally, economic changes, the decline of world oil prices can affect the consolidation of oil-exporting countries in the settlement of the Middle East problems. Mainly, according to Khashoggi, there is a real desire of the peoples of the Middle East to democracy and good governance.

Raghida Dergham, Founder and Executive Chairman, Beirut Institute, urged not to equate terrorism with the Middle East and ISIS. Russia, in her opinion, should not play on the religious controversies in the region in the process of conflict settlement. She noted that the Russian-American cooperation is required in all aspects, and can lead to resolve the Libyan crisis. Raghida Dergham said, that for Russia is more important to determine the forms of cooperation with Iran and possibly conduct a more assertive policy towards Tehran. She believes that Iran, unlike Russia, has its own long-term interests in Syria, which are unsatisfactory neither for Russia, nor for the world community. Raghida Dergham is convinced, that today is too early to rejoice or to be upset regarding changes in the US foreign policy after the election of Donald Trump, because it is not a country where decisions are taken by one person. An important factor of the peaceful settlement of the Middle East crisis is the need for cooperation between Russia and the US, the conclusion of appropriate agreements.

Steven Heydemann, Associate Professor of Political Science at Columbia University, mentioned a mixed reaction in the world regarding the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States.  He pointed to the inconsistency and some chaotic actions of the new president, which already spoiled relations with the country's judicial system. What kind of relationship Russia wants to build with the US in the Middle East, and how this will be perceived in Washington? Expressing the position of Daniel Kurtzer, Heydemann said, that many in the United States accused Russia of meddling in the country's internal affairs and the presidential election, and if this information is to be confirmed, the consequences will be negative. Almost everyone in the United States consider Russia's actions in the Middle East as an aggression, and the positions of two countries regarding Bashar Assad are incompatible.

During the talk with the audience the speakers also touched the problems of right-wing populism in the Middle East, the potential axis Turkey - Iran – Russia, and other topics. In general, experts have came to a conclusion, that the main purpose of the entire world community is to strengthen cooperation between the leading world powers in the fight against terrorism and the establishment of stability in the Middle East. Mikhail Bogdanov began by saying that the determining factor in global politics is security. The situation in the Middle East is a clear example of propagation and application of measures that do not correspond to the cultural diversity of the region. He also stressed that one of the main problems of the region and the world is the international terrorism, and that victory over it is possible only through global cooperation. Confirming importance of the problem was a telephone conversation between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, who confirmed a priority of this challenge, as well as the agreement between Russia and the Syrian authorities regarding the fight against terrorism. Bogdanov noted the importance of the decision on the cessation of hostilities, adopted by Russia, Turkey and Iran. Moreover, he mentioned the importance of negotiations of the Joint Task Force on Syria in Astana and the possibilities of other formats of negotiations.

Bogdanov also pointed to the need to end the Libyan crisis and to return it the status of a strong player in the international arena. Bogdanov considers the resolution of the Libyan problem primarily as an issue of taking into account the opinions of all social groups, as well as the undesirability and impossibility of imposing any foreign political constructs. Bogdanov also mentioned the crisis in Yemen, where the solution is also possible exclusively by peaceful means through the restoration of the political process and assistance of the United Nations. According to Bogdanov, Russia supports the Government of Iraq in securing the country's territorial integrity. He expressed his belief that the terrorists will be defeated in Iraq. An important aspect for maintaining stability in the country, according to Bogdanov, is the prevention of an uncoordinated presence of foreign military forces on the territory of Iraq. He concluded that the solution of the Middle East’s problems is only possible by joint efforts of the international community.

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi mentioned major challenges that influenced the development of the Middle East crisis. First, the change of therole of Russia in the region, particularly in Syria. Russia, according to Khashoggi, is now not only a peacemaker, but also a mediator in the talks with the Syrian opposition. In this context, the creation of a transitional government in Syria will be a test for Russia, as it will mean withdrawal of Bashar al-Assad. Second, Donald Trump's coming to power in the USA does not allow one to understand clearly, what is happening in the United States today. Nevertheless, some of his promises, such as the cessation of Iran's hegemony in the region, are encouraging. According to Khashoggi, it is still not obvious which of the Middle Eastern states will be able to draw Trump on its side: Turkey or Saudi Arabia. Khashoggi welcomed Trump's policy on Syria. The return of stability in the region is necessary even in case of a temporary return of autocratic regimes. Now, as we can talk about ISIS as an ordinary terrorist organization and not as a "state," the need to destroy it remains. Finally, economic changes and the decline of world oil prices can affect the consolidation of oil-exporting countries in the settlement of the Middle East problems. Mainly, according to Khashoggi, there is a real desire among the peoples of the Middle East to achieve democracy and good governance.

Raghida Dergham, Founder and Executive Chairman, Beirut Institute, urged to not equate terrorism with the Middle East and ISIS. Russia, in her opinion, should not play on the religious controversies in the region in the process of conflict settlement. She noted that the Russian-American cooperation is required in all aspects, and can lead to resolve the Libyan crisis. Raghida Dergham said that for Russia, it is more important to determine the forms of cooperation with Iran and possibly conduct a more assertive policy towards Tehran. According to Dergham, Iran, unlike Russia, has its own long-term interests in Syria, which are unsatisfactory neither for Russia, nor for the world community. She added that today is too early to rejoice or to be upset regarding changes in the US foreign policy after the election of Donald Trump, because it is not a country where decisions are taken by one person. An important factor of the peaceful settlement of the Middle East crisis is the need for cooperation between Russia and the US, the conclusion of appropriate agreements.

Steven Heydemann, Associate Professor of Political Science at Columbia University, mentioned a mixed reaction in the world regarding the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States.  He pointed to the inconsistency and some chaotic actions of the new president, which already spoiled relations with the country's judicial system. What kind of relationship Russia wants to build with the US in the Middle East, and how will this be perceived in Washington? Expressing the position of Daniel Kurtzer, Heydemann said that many in the United States accused Russia of meddling in the country's internal affairs and the presidential election and that if this information is to be confirmed, the consequences will be negative. Almost everyone in the United States considers Russia's actions in the Middle East as an aggression, and the positions of two countries regarding Bashar Assad are incompatible.

During the talk with the audience, the speakers also touched the problems of right-wing populism in the Middle East, the potential Turkey-Iran-Russia axis and other topics. In general, experts came to the conclusion that the main purpose of the entire international community is to strengthen cooperation between the leading world powers in the fight against terrorism and the establishment of stability in the Middle East.

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