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Moscow at the Center of Middle Eastern Affairs

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By Shehab Al Makahleh •

On April 20th 2017 Russian President Vladimir Putin is meeting Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan to discuss a number of bilateral issues, with special attention given to the fight against international terrorism “in the context of Syrian settlement”, according to the Kremlin press service. Besides Syria, the crises in the wider Middle East and North Africa are also expected to be on the agenda.

The meeting is the last in a series of serious diplomatic discussions at the highest level between Middle Eastern states and the Russian Federation. The talks between the two parties will be significant because of the UAE’s growing importance as a key regional player with strong ties with Russia in a number of areas, including trade and defense. Moreover, the UAE along with Russia and Egypt is playing a key role in supporting Libyan general Khalifa Haftar against Daesh in the war-torn North African country.

Since the entry into the Syrian conflict in late 2015, upon invitation from the Syrian government, Russian diplomatic and military corps are at the forefront of the Middle Eastern affairs, much to the chagrin of the key Western powers, especially the United States and the UK.

Last month Jordan hosted the Arab League Summit where the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister and Special Presidential Representative for the Middle East and Africa Mikhail Bogdanov met with the Arab League leaders, where the parties agreed about the need to strengthen Russia-Arab League interaction on the regional and global matters, and expanding the existing Russo-Arab cooperation, and returning to the principles of the UN Charter and international law to counter terrorism. The most important outcome of the Summit was the support for the territorial integrity of Syria and the support for the Palestinian-Israeli settlement on which both sides concurred.

On April 14 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with his Qatari counterpart Mohamed al-Thani, where the two sides agreed on the need for an independent investigation into the chemical attacks that took place in Khan Sheikhoun in Syria which drove US president Donald Trump to order a cruise missile attack on Syrian Shayrat airbase near Homs. Qatari FM also said that the two parties agreed on the need to end the suffering of the Syrian people, elevating the GCC-Russia cooperation in the fields of investment, oil, gas, culture, sports and defense, among others.

The meeting was followed by the visit of the Russian delegation to Saudi Arabia from 15-17 April, led by the Chairman of the Federation Council Valentina Matviyenko in which Russia and Saudis agreed on the need for cooperation in fight against terrorism, among other important regional issues.

Day after, on April 18, Deputy Foreign Minister and Special Presidential Representative for the Middle East and Africa Mikhail Bogdanov met with Deputy Foreign Minister of Kuwait Khaled al-Jarallah, to discuss the situation in the Middle East and North Africa with a major focus on Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Palestinian-Israeli settlement as well as the current state of relations between Iran and the GCC. Two diplomats reaffirmed principled Moscow–Kuwait stance on an early settlement of regional conflicts through political and diplomatic means, in strict compliance with international law. Moreover, both officials again stressed the need for resolute fight against global terrorism.

On the same day, Deputy Foreign Minister Bogdanov met with socio-political delegation from Misrata, chaired by the leader of the United Libya Movement, Abdul Hameed Al Dabeeba. The meeting stressed on the importance of promoting inclusive intra-Libyan dialogue between main political forces, tribes and regions towards creating national bodies of authority, including an army and police to maintain security, law and order and effectively fight terrorism, as reported by the Russian Ministry of the Foreign Affairs press release following the meeting.

The importance of the internationally recognized settlement plan for Syria was emphasized on Wednesday by Russian FM Sergei Lavrov, who said that a plan for the Syrian crisis settlement already exists, approved in New York by the United Nations Security Council via Resolution 2254. Russian top diplomat further added that “the resolution [2254] covers all aspects of a peaceful settlement based on the principle that only the Syrian people have the right to decide on their country’s future,” and that UNSC resolution 2254 has no alternative.

The series of high level meetings spearheaded by Russian corps diplomatique have all focused on the respect of international law before everything else, and the efforts now seem to be bearing fruit even among the Arab states that were previously opposed and some even directly involved in the Syrian crisis in various capacities.

Finally, Russian FM Lavrov is soon set to meet his counterparts from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. It is expected that the meeting will be successful in reaching agreement on bringing the number of Middle Eastern issues to settlement. Syrian war has just entered its sixth year and has demonstrated that the military option and regime change attempts do not end well for anyone, as they have only helped the terrorist factions and mercenaries to flourish and tarnish the image of the Middle East and Islam as a whole globally. As for the Arab states they have also realized, through the Iraqi and Libyan disasters, that despite multilateral cooperation with the Western powers they can only hope for the prosperity of their region if they would put efforts together and sectarian differences aside.

Although not explicitly mentioned anywhere, there are indications that the Russia-GCC foreign ministers meeting will touch upon the need to rebuild relations with Iran, however much animosity has recently been expressed by both Arabs and their Persian neighbor. The realization that the region can only be peaceful and prosperous if all of its parts are collaborating rather than fighting one another may have been helped by the Russian diplomatic efforts, somewhat China, and two of the GCC members – Kuwait and Oman. And most importantly, that an understanding will be reached that the region is a home to all these nations, and that lasting peace and prosperity can only be achieved through joint efforts.

Unlike the unsuccessful and non-Arab inspired so-called ‘Arab Spring’ that all but brought any positive change, this spring may bring about a glimmer of hope of a real Arab Awakening from top down, befitting the 21st century and meeting the challenges ahead with strategic forethought and wisdom gained from the lessons learned from the past.

Shehab Al Makahleh is a co-founder of Geostrategic Media, senior political and economic analyst, policy and media adviser in the Middle East
Photo credit: Kremlin