Russia in the Middle East: Playing on All Fields. Programme of the Valdai Discussion Club’s Middle East Conference
InterContinental Hotel, 22 Tverskaya st., Moscow
List of speakers
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Programme of the Valdai Discussion Club’s Middle East Conference

Russia in the Middle East: Playing on All Fields

Moscow, February 19-20, 2018

Hotel InterContinental Moscow Tverskaya, Rodchenko Conference Hall (3 floor)

February 19, Monday

09.30-11.00    Opening of the conference

Andrey BYSTRITSKIY, Chairman of the Board, Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club

Vitaly NAUMKIN, Full Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, President of the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences

Session 1. Russia in the Middle East: A Paradox of Perception

The military defeat of ISIL as a quasi-state structure, which became possible thanks to the Russian Aerospace Forces, is a milestone in the modern history of the Middle East. This success was logically followed by holding of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi, which demonstrated Moscow’s ability to combine power and diplomacy in its foreign policy. As a crucial component of the regional agenda, Russia’s actions in Syria are only an element of its growing activity in the Middle East, which manifests itself in its increasingly prominent involvement in the settlement of conflict situations. A proactive and multifaceted diplomacy has enabled Moscow to expand its circle of partners by proposing creative initiatives on the most acute problems of regional development and facilitating new models of interaction. In this context, Russia’s Middle East strategy, the prospect of its further actions and its vision of the possible architecture of regional relations as well as the perception of its activities by other players are of great interest.

•          What is the current hierarchy of Russia’s interests in the region?

•          How do other actors perceive Russia’s role in the region?

•          Is there a prospect of Russia’s military assets being used further and how can they be correlated with the tools of diplomacy?

•          To what extent is Russia’s mediation necessary for regional and external actors?

•          What are the prospects of trilateral interaction between Russia, Turkey, and Iran and can new multilateral alliances with Russia’s participation emerge?

Sergey LAVROV, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation

Mohammad Javad ZARIF, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran

Bouthaina SHAABAN, Advisor to the President of the Syrian Arab Republic

Nabil FAHMY, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Arab Republic of Egypt (2013-2014); Dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, American University in Cairo

Moderator: Vitaly NAUMKIN, Full Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, President of the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences

11.30-13.00    Session 2. Syria: After War, Peace

Vladimir Putin’s announcement of the withdrawal of the main contingent of Russian troops from Syria marked another milestone in the course of events in the war-torn country. Despite the positive experience of the Astana process establishing de-escalation zones, which have substantially levelled down violence, the issue of a political settlement is not yet resolved and neither are the attendant issues of Syria’s economic recovery and the social rehabilitation of the Syrian population. Russia’s continued military presence in Syria can ultimately become a factor of boosting security in the country, while its extensive contacts with both the Syrian government and various opposition groups, its major involvement in the settlement process indicate that Moscow intends to support Syria in its post-conflict development.

•          What mechanisms can the international community offer to step up the political settlement in Syria and support the transition process?

•          How do the major stakeholders envision their involvement in Syria’s economic recovery efforts and what might Russia’s role be?

•          What can be done to make refugees’ return easier during the post-conflict period and heal society?

•          What is the position of regional and external actors on ensuring the stability of the Syrian state after the war?

Alexander AKSENYONOK, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation; Vice-President, Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC)

Raghida DERGHAM, Founder and Executive Chairman, Beirut Institute

Ramzy E. RAMZY, Deputy Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Syria

Seyed Mohammad Kazem SAJJADPOUR, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran; President, Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS)

Moderator: Hrair BALIAN, Director, Conflict Resolution Program, The Carter Center  

14.30-16.00    Session 3. Yemen: An Unnoticed Tragedy?

Of all the armed conflicts in the Middle East, the conflict in Yemen has brought about the greatest humanitarian catastrophe. Even if humanitarian aid did not hit so many obstacles on the way, the UN today is not capable of reaching all the people in distress.

Despite the tragic circumstances and the Yemen conflict becoming a major problem on the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen is not attracting the attention it deserves from actors outside the region.

Lately the ongoing political fragmentation of Yemen has become more pronounced with more and more points of confrontation between regional actors within the country. In addition to getting caught between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the country has become a battlefield for Gulf monarchies such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The assassination of Ali Abdullah Saleh by his former allies in December 2017 was a result of those processes and perhaps a harbinger of a new round of escalation.

•          Why are existing conflict resolution mechanisms not working in Yemen?

•          How can outside actors help advance the resolution of the conflict and what leverage do they have to influence the opposing sides?

•          What can be done to improve humanitarian cooperation in Yemen?

Karim HAGGAG, Professor of Practice, The American University in Cairo

Ali NASER MOHAMED, President of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (1980–1986)

Oleg OZEROV, Deputy Director of the Department of Africa of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation; Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (2010–2017)

Moderator: Joost HILTERMANN, Program Director, Middle East and North Africa, International Crisis Group

16.30-18.00    Session 4. Middle Eastern Settlement: An Exploded Quiet?

Settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, pushed to the background by other disputes in the region, is returning to the fore in the Middle East. Unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by the United States – heedless of international commitments related to Palestine – was met with predictable resistance from the Palestinians and inflamed tensions in Arab-Israeli and Arab-US relations. The immediate resumption of final status negotiations between Palestine and Israel seems to be the only way to restrain the rising violence and threats.

•          Could the increased tensions lead to a resumption of talks?

•          What measures are available to the international mediators and the leading regional powers (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan)?

•          Is it reasonable to begin talks with a discussion of Jerusalem’s status, and could an agreement on Jerusalem be reached without it being strictly linked to the resolution of other major issues in the conflict?

Mikhail BOGDANOV, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation

Sahar ALQAWASMI, Member of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC)

Daniel LEVY, President, U.S. / Middle East Project

Amos YADLIN, Major General (ret.), Executive Director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS)

Hossam ZAKI, Assistant Secretary General of the League of Arab States

Moderator: Irina ZVYAGELSKAYA, Chief Research Fellow, Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences

February 20, Tuesday

10.00-11.30    Session 5. Bringing Libya Back: A Common Cause?

In 2017, Russia stepped up its Libya policy. The policy of maintaining “equal distance” with the various sides in the Libyan conflict manifested itself in numerous visits to Russia by representatives of Tripoli, Tobruk, Misurata and other political centers. Moscow confirmed its support of the UN plan for resolving the conflict; however, Russia’s strategy and interests in the country are still causing many questions among external observers, and the prospects of international cooperation on the Libyan settlement process remain vague.

•          How does Russia see its involvement in the Libyan settlement process and how is it seen by other actors?

•          What specific steps can be taken to help end the conflict?

•          What mechanisms do external actors have to assist Libyans in rebuilding social and financial infrastructure, restricting migration and curbing violence?

Anwar DARKAZALLY, Director of Political Affairs, United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL)

Lev DENGOV, Head of the Russian Contact Group for intra-Libyan Settlement

Romain GRANDJEAN, Director, Near East and North Africa, Center for Humanitarian Dialogue

Deborah K. JONES, US Ambassador to Kuwait (2008-2011) and to Libya (2013-2015)

Moderator: Abdul Rahman ALAGELI, Associate Fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House; Security Advisor at the office of the Libyan Prime Minister (2012-2014)

12.00-13.30    Session 6. The Fate of the Kurds: A Central Issue?

The aggravation of the Kurdish issue is perhaps the most significant long-term consequence of the transformation of the Middle Eastern. The Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum in 2017 was the first outright bid for full Kurdish sovereignty. Meanwhile, the Kurds’ future came to the fore in the Syrian settlement process and defined Turkey’s policy regarding Syria. Like a number of other states outside the region, Russia has so far avoided any definitive statements on the Kurdish issue and managed to build equally positive relations with central governments and leaders of the Kurdish movements in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. But will the key international actors be able to keep it up?

•          What are the limits of the Kurds’ potential autonomy in Turkey, Iraq and Syria?

•          How closely are the Kurdish national movements connected in these countries? Is it possible to create a common front?

•          Can the international community come to a consolidated position on the Kurdish issue?

Hemin HAWRAMI, Member of Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) Leadership Council, Senior Assistant to President Massoud Barzani

Dore GOLD, President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs; Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Israel (2015–2016); Permanent Representative of Israel to the UN (1997–1999)   

Nir ROSEN, Syria and Iraq advisor, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue

Moderator: Andrey KORTUNOV, Director General, Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC)

15.00-16.30    Session 7. Iran: An Independent Course?

Iran’s role remains one of the most complicated issues of the Middle East agenda, with the greatest potential to spark conflict. The Islamic republic has legitimate interests in the region and it will be impossible to stabilize the situation without reasonable consideration of those interests. But what are the limits of these interests and what mechanisms can ensure that they are pursued without prejudice to other countries?

Tehran has shown the willingness to conclude a nuclear deal and stick to it so far. It is acting as a guarantor of the ceasefire and the restoration of peaceful life in Syria based on de-escalation zones. It is successfully participating in combat operations against terrorists in Iraq. The tensions around Iran are more geopolitical than religiously motivated, although the chance that faith will be used for mobilization purposes should not be completely discounted.

Russia, which is maintaining constructive relations with Iran as well as with its regional rivals, is ready to help bridge the differences between the opposing parties and boost trust for the Islamic republic in the region.

•          What are Iran’s primary interests in the region at the moment and what means is it prepared to use to secure them?

•          Which ‘red lines’ should neither Iran nor its opponents cross?

•          What confidence-building measures can be proposed to relieve the tension in Iran’s relations with other Middle Eastern states?

Mustafa AYDIN, Rector, Kadir Has University (Istanbul)

Kayhan BARZEGAR, Kayhan BARZEGAR, Director, Center for Middle East Strategic Studies (Tehran)

Robin WRIGHT, Senior Fellow, U.S. Institute of Peace; Distinguished Scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; Contributing Writer, The New Yorker magazine

Moderator: Vasily KUZNETSOV, Head of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences

17.00-18.30    Session 8. The Future of One Region

In today’s increasingly complex and interconnected world, the image of the Middle East is changing. It has long since ceased to be a region where major world powers compete for control over political events and for access to resources, thereby reinforcing their positions in the international arena. The countries of the Middle East today are trying to secure their own interests by employing the capabilities of external forces, and that includes military capabilities. These external forces are pursuing their own agendas, and growing more confident in their influence on local forces and ambitions. This correlation is unlikely to help the Middle East break the vicious cycle of conflict. The region’s future requires recovery and steady development, balanced reforms and the rational use of resources. It requires a paradigm shift in relations with the external forces that could support the socioeconomic and political improvements and increase security.

•          Is it possible to strengthen statehood in the midst of unresolved conflicts?

•          How can Russia and other states as well as non-state actors help reduce antagonism at the major flashpoints (Iran-Saudi Arabia, Iran-Israel, Israel-Palestine, Tobruk-Tripoli)?

•          What joint international projects can be offered to the region’s countries (use of water resources, preventing desertification, building supply lines, etc.)?

Mohamed BECHARI, Secretary General of the Islamic European Conference (IEC)

Mohamed ELBADRI, Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Arab Republic of Egypt

Sergey KARAGANOV, Dean of the School of World Economics and International Relations at the National Research University Higher School of Economics; Honorary Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy

Taha OZHAN, Member of Grand National Assembly of Turkey  

Moderator: Fyodor LUKYANOV, Research Director of the Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club