Where the Middle East Goes?

Where the Middle East Goes?

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, center, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, and UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, right, arrive for a news conference after the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) meeting in Munich, Germany.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, center, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, and UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, right, arrive for a news conference after the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) meeting in Munich, Germany.
Luck or failure of the Syria settlement in a large extent would determine the fate of the entire region, because long ago the internal Syrian conflict acquired the regional and global status.
Despite the relevance of the question where the Middle East is moving, it is difficult to give a confident and convincing answer. The process of devolution of the Middle East region has gone too far. It is based on three historically caused crises. Firstly, there is a systemic crisis of the nation states, which could not withstand the challenges of globalization. Not by chance it has become a habit to speak about the end of the Sykes-Picot regional architecture, “engineered” by the European powers – Great Britain and France, who did not believe in the self-government ability of the former vilayets of the defeated Ottoman Empire.

Secondly, there is an identity crisis, which was the result of decades of internal contradictions accumulation. Finally, thirdly, it is the crisis of the world order, emerged after the end of the Cold war.

Many of the politically stagnant Middle Eastern regimes failed to adapt to rapidly changing conditions and to respond adequately to the new challenges. Especially difficult became the situation in those countries of the region, which are considered “deeply divided”. Not by chance, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Syria, became the scenes of a deep internal rift that split their sectarian, ethnic, clan, geographical, tribal links. In many ways, the intervention of Western and regional players contributed to sharp deterioration of the conflicts.

What awaits the Middle East states, sinking in internal conflicts: a peace settlement and the transition to the new development direction, the conservative stabilization, continuation or even escalation of conflicts, the disintegration and secession, formation of new states? Today, despite the enormous efforts of the local elites and the international community, the situation in many of these countries remains acute. And the most tragic result of the turbulent process was the seizure of a large part of the territory of Iraq and Syria by the most terrible and inhumane terrorist groups – ISIS (Daesh), Jabhat al-Nusra (affiliated with al-Qaeda), and some others. Virtually the whole international community now is strongly against ISIS.

However, if you focus on the bloody internal conflict in Syria, the question is which groups should be considered as terrorist and which are not. This issue continues to divide the participants of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), including Russia and the United States. In recent months, Russian diplomacy has tried in vain to convince the Western and regional partners that such big and heavy- armed anti-government Islamist groups as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam belong to terrorists. This met a consistent resistance from our partners. Representatives of those two groups were even invited to the Saudi capital Riyadh in December to the meeting of the Syrian opposition groups. Leader of Jaysh al-Islam Mohammed Alloush was among the members, elected to the Supreme Commission for Negotiations.

Our partners argue that Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam are not homogeneous and their inclusion into the list of terrorist organizations leads to their further radicalization, and thrust them into the arms of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. At one of the “round tables” one prominent Saudi journalist said that without Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam Syrian opposition simply would not exist. Western states and regional powers are insisting on their support. Now, it seems, Russia no longer insists on its previous assessments. Manifestation of Moscow’s flexibility was the inclusion into the US-Russian statement on Syria of 22 February of the formula of the complete exclusion from the ceasefire regime of ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and “other terrorist organizations, recognized as such by the UN Security Council.” But the chances that the US would “miss” the recognition of the UN Security Council of Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam as terrorist organizations, are close to zero.

Let’s note, that the US always comes down hard with criticism against Russia for alleged attacks against moderate opposition instead of ISIS. However, as Aron Lund reminds in an article published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, most recently in Iraq the US indiscriminately launched missiles and bombed al-Qaeda and other oppositional Sunni groups that did not have any relation to it, branding them all as “terrorists”.

There is the question of what to do, if among the moderate opposition forces would be groups of Jabhat al-Nusra, which are often mixed with other opposition units. It can benefit from the fact that there are less foreign jihadists (about 20%) than in ISIS. Can the US and Russian experts jointly define the territory held by ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra? Is it possible to make it with the required degree of accuracy? It is necessary, because the peace process is at stake.

At the same time from the cease-fire regime could be excluded not only the two above-mentioned terrorist groups, but also those groups of the moderate opposition, which by the deadline won’t inform about their readiness to join the ceasefire. The Syrian army and its allies, including Russian Aerospace Forces, can continue fighting against them. The main opposition groups have already confirmed their readiness for a ceasefire, but they have put a number of preconditions, in the spirit of UN Security Council Resolution #2254 of 18 December 2015: removal of cities sieges by government forces, ensure humanitarian help access, termination of shelling of civilians, release of prisoners. The Syrian government does not put forward preconditions, although the opposition also laid siege of towns and villages. Among the loyalists there is a wide-spread opinion that the armed opposition can take advantage of the removal of the sieges to regroup their forces and then to resume fighting against the Syrian army. In this context, particular importance has the monitoring of mutual cessation of hostilities.

Of particular importance is the cooperation between Russia and the United States in the framework of the so-called ISSG Ceasefire Task Force. Not less important is monitoring of unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid to suffering peaceful population. This aid is supplied by Russia in considerable quantities. Of 7 districts where by the ISSG decision the humanitarian aid should be delivered, two are under siege by ISIS, two more – by rebel groups, supported by the West, the Arab Gulf States and al-Qaeda, and the rest three – by government forces and their allies, including Hezbollah.

In general, cooperation between Russia and the US on Syria is one of the major achievements of the process which has received a sensational development. There are concessions not only by Moscow but also by Washington. Even when adopting the UN Security Council Resolution #2254 of 18 December, on the insistence of Russia and China references to president Bashar al-Assad were excluded from the text. He also was not mentioned in the joint statement.

It seems that luck or failure of the Syria settlement in a large extent would determine the fate of the entire region, because long ago the internal Syrian conflict acquired the regional and global status. Can the fragile agreements between Washington and Moscow develop into full-scale cooperation with the plague of the XXI century – international terrorism?

Vitaly Naumkin is President of the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS); Professor; Corresponding Member, RAS.