The Foggy Future of One Region. Results of the Second Day of the Valdai Club Middle East Conference

21.02.2018

The second day of the Valdai Club Middle East conference was no less intense than the first one. Participants in the four sessions discussed the fate of the Libyan people, the Kurdish issue, the role of Iran in the Middle East, and also the rather vague (due to the growing tension) “future of one region.”

The conference “Russia in the Middle East: playing in all fields” was held in Moscow on February 19-20, and was organized by the Valdai Discussion Club in partnership with the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Libya and the national idea

The fate of Libya, which, according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, turned into a “black hole” after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, was discussed during the fifth session of the Valdai Club conference. Participants in the session stated that the events in Libya after the overthrow of Gaddafi weakened the already fragile state institutions, and their reinforcement is a long-term task. In the near future, it is necessary to achieve recognition of a unified political framework from all parties and to complete the transition period. However, attempts to exert pressure on the Libyan people from outside will not be successful.

According to Lev Dengov, Head of the Russian Contact Group for Intra-Libyan Settlement, the situation in Libya is fundamentally different from the conflicts in Syria or Yemen. First, Libya is one of the richest countries in the world by hydrocarbon reserves, and confrontation in this country is primarily for resources. Second, the armed conflict there is relatively moderate and is characterized by localization of actors. The Libyan people are ready to organize themselves in response to external threats, Dengov said.

Deborah Jones, the US Ambassador to Kuwait (2008-2011) and Libya (2013-2015), believes that the Libyans can unite around the national idea based on the well-being using natural resources and economic ties with the outside world through the Mediterranean ports.

Kurdish issue

The aggravation of the Kurdish problem is perhaps the most significant consequence of the Middle East strategic transformation. Russia, like some other extra-regional powers, has so far tried to avoid unambiguous statements on the Kurdish problem, managing to build equally positive relations with both central authorities of the region’s states and leaders of the Kurdish movements in Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

But will the key international actors continue to follow such a course? This problem, as well as the limits of possible autonomy for Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and Syria, was discussed at the sixth session of the Valdai Club Middle East conference.

Iran: Lost in translation

The seventh session of the Valdai Club Middle East conference was devoted to Iran’s role in the region and difficulties with strengthening security in the Middle East. The role of Iran in the Middle Eastern affairs has for many years sparked heated discussions both in the region and beyond. Iran claims that it has no plans for regional hegemony, but its neighbors are wary of its actions, while countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia consider Iran the main threat to stability in the Middle East and their national security.

There are tensions in Iran’s relations with most countries in the region. The central conflict concerns the contradictions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. According to Robin Wright, senior fellow at the US Institute of Peace, these contradictions are not exactly connected to the dogmatic differences between Sunnis and Shiites. There is a fight for the status of the key US ally in the region. Before the Islamic revolution, Iran played this role, afterwards it moved to Saudi Arabia. After the “nuclear deal” was signed, Saudi Arabia and Israel began to fear normalization of relations between the United States and Iran, and the return of Tehran’s status as the privileged partner of Washington.

Everything has changed under the current US administration. Under Trump, the United States invests in two countries of the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia, Wright said. They are categorically against the inclusion of Iran in the regional security architecture (as discussed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the first session of the Valdai Club Middle East conference). Normalization of relations between the United States and Iran under Trump is impossible, Wright concluded, and deterrence against Iran is one of the reasons why Washington retains its presence in Syria.

Kayhan Barzegar, Director of the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies (Tehran), drew attention to the perception of Iran’s role by Russia. According to him, Moscow wisely and far-sightedly makes efforts to legitimize Iran’s role on the regional agenda, including the fight against terrorism. “Russia is well aware of Iran’s potential ‘on the ground’ and therefore does not try to ignore its role,” the expert said. Teheran for its part does not perceive Moscow as a threat to its security and this creates the potential for development of bilateral relations.

The future of one region

The eighth session of the Valdai Club Middle East Conference summed up the results of two days’ hard work. The panelists talked about the ways to change the paradigm of interaction between the region and external forces, which could support the socio-economic and political development, and strengthen security.

In an interview with valdaiclub.com, Fyodor Lukyanov, research director of the Valdai Discussion Club and the moderator of the eighth session, noted that the Club’s annual Middle East conferences serve as a barometer of what is happening in the region.

In the year after the previous conference, the number of ruptures and conflicts related to the region has multiplied, and the fact that the Valdai Club managed to convene representatives of so many interested parties, and for the first time the discussions were held on very specific topics, revealing the main contradictions, justified the event.

The conversations turned out to be meaningful, and the goal, which was to clarify the Russian position on the Middle East, was to a certain extent achieved, Lukyanov said.

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