On Monday, February 17, the Valdai Discussion Club kicked off its 9th Middle East Conference. Four sessions were held that day, one of which, open to the media, was attended by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov, who read the greeting message from Sergey Lavrov.
This year’s Valdai Club Middle East conference is the ninth in a row, and each has been held amid instability in the region. From year to year, the Middle East demonstrates a refusal to come to any positive “normal”. Long-standing conflicts continue to smoulder, and new sources of tension arise. At the same time, regional and external players demonstrate a certain degree of ingenuity, creating more and more bizarre situations. The armies of Syria and Turkey exchange fire in Idlib, the United States and Iran balance on the brink of war, but, contrary to all expectations, end the confrontation through de-escalation, while Donald Trump offers the Palestinians a “deal of the century” which astounds even the most seasoned observers with its “take it or leave it” one-sidedness. In other words, instability, despite taking new forms, continues to characterise the situation in the Middle East.
One of the key topics of the first day of the conference, first announced at the session “Middle East – Future Oriented. Two Perspectives”, is a foreign intervention on such a scale that the sovereignty of some states can be considered limited. “The Middle East caldron is boiling because of the high level of external interference,” said Vitaliy Naumkin, adding that it is necessary to distinguish between uninvited intervention and the presence of external forces that arrive with the consent of the UN Security Council and legitimate governments. Ali al-Ahmad, a political and public figure from Syria, also indicated the need to reduce external pressure.
The fine line between mediation and foreign intervention was discussed at the second session, titled “Conflicts and Mediators”. For decades, the United States has been the leading external player in the Middle East, claiming the title of principal mediator. However, American Middle East politics have never resolved a single conflict, and experiments with so-called “controlled chaos” have caused widespread discontent. However, the current relative decline of US interest in the region worries many. Not only Israel, which is the only state in the region that openly welcomes the American presence, but also the Arab countries, which fear that, as a result, Iran’s positions will be strengthened. These fears were, as usual, voiced by the representatives of Arab countries, while their Iranian counterparts characteristically rejected allegations of claims for regional hegemony.
On the other hand, one should not overestimate the degree of the “withdrawal” of the United States from the region. Indeed, thanks to overcoming its dependence on oil imports, its economic interest in the Middle East has declined, but both its military presence and political influence still remain. Recently the Trump administration launched an initiative to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, demonstrating a rather original approach to mediation – in that it acts in the interests of only one of the parties. Despite the fact that this initiative was negatively perceived in Muslim countries, for some time it again drew attention to the Palestinian problem, which was noted by speakers.
In recent years, Russia’s role in Middle Eastern affairs has significantly strengthened. As one Arab expert noted, this is the only great power that has learned from the international crises of recent years. Currently, none of the countries in the region perceives Russia’s presence unambiguously negatively, which, against the background of other players, can be considered a significant achievement. As for the European countries, they, according to one of the participants, speak of mediation more than anyone else, while having minimal opportunities to influence the situation in the region.
The third session, “Arabs and Three Non-Arab States,” was dedicated to the role of Israel, Iran, and Turkey in the affairs of the Middle East and North Africa. The issue of the restricted sovereignty of the Arab states was raised again. According to the straight expression of one of the experts, they are becoming not the subjects of regional policy, but its context. The latest example is the Iran-US confrontation, from which so far Iraq has suffered the most.
The speakers agreed that fragmentation in Arab societies leads to a strengthening of non-Arab players. But does this mean an increase of security in the region as a whole? Apparently not. So, Turkey wants to achieve strategic autonomy, but it gains strategic vulnerability, getting involved in conflicts outside its territory. Israel has a narrow agenda focused on its own security, while Iran pursues a largely defensive policy, but at the same time its neighbours suspect Iran of harbouring a desire to dominate the Middle East.
The topic of foreign intervention continued during the fourth session, “Persian Gulf: War and Peace.” It was mainly about the Iran-US confrontation and its impact on the region. The participants again had the opportunity to observe that the “withdrawal” of the United States from the Middle East is a very relative concept. One of the speakers recalled that the policy of the Trump administration is characterised by ideologisation, aiming at confrontation against Iran and following the maxim “everything that is not Obama”. At the same time, the American military contingent in the region has increased by 25,000 people, despite Trump’s declared isolationism and voters’ rejection of expensive wars abroad.
“America will not leave the Gulf,” one expert said. “And if it tries, it will be sucked back.” And the matter is not only in the internal dynamics of the region. One of the few issues on which there is bipartisan consensus in the United States is the containment of China. America may no longer need Middle Eastern oil - but growing China needs it, and in order to have the necessary leverage, the US will maintain its presence in the Gulf.