Messages from Moscow
International forums that bring policy makers, experts and journalists together have become important platforms in the post-cold war era to deliver political messages and induce debate in a semi-friendly atmosphere. The Munich Security Conference or Davos Economic Forum have become such occasions, and are eagerly attended by policy-makers and analysts.
Originally the purview of bigger powers or neutral countries dealing mostly with security issues, what one may call “forum diplomacy” has geographically and topically spread out in recent years. One such international gathering that has captured world attention in recent years has been the Valdai Discussion Club, an institution created by several Russian institutions to organize international meetings, where Russia’s policies and views could be explained to the wider world. As President Vladimir Putin has hosted guests of the club since it is founding in 2004, it has become an important venue in the global policy conferences circle.
This year’s Valdai meeting on the Middle East took place in Moscow on 19-20 Feb. and was ostentatiously titled “Russia in the Middle East: Playing on All Fields.” Designed to showcase Russian policies towards the region, it gave out clues about its preferences. The messages were abundant from the titles of the panels, to the speaker choices and absentees.
Although the title claimed that Russia was “playing on all fields” in the Middle East, the absence of Iraq and Egypt among the panels, which included Libya, Yemen, Kurds, Syria, Palestine and Iran, was telling. It seemed as if Russia has left Egypt and Iraq to the U.S. and perhaps even Iran. Similarly, the Russian Middle East did not stretch as far as the Gulf or Saudi Arabia. It was also interesting to note that U.S. speakers sat in panels on the futures of Palestine, Libya and Iran, but no Syrian was in the panel on Syria’s future and no Libyan speaker in the Libya panel.
Another important deficiency was high-level attendance from Turkey. In a meeting where the future of Syria, Kurds and the Middle East in general were discussed with the participation of the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Egypt, as well as an advisor to the Syrian President, the absence of the Turkish foreign minister was particularly noticeable. Moreover, the fact that Turkish speakers were placed in panels that had little to do with Turkey, and certainly nothing to do with Syria, Iraq or the Kurds, indicated a clear thought-process.
In such an environment, Turkey-bashing became a favorable pastime for Kurdish and Syrian participants. Iranians, on the other hand, were harsh on Israel and the U.S., while their criticisms of Turkey were thinly veiled. Iran’s annoyance with Turkey’s “Operation Olive Branch” became clear when Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif acknowledged that Turkey had legitimate concerns in Afrin, but twice stressed that military means were “not the way to address them.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was more careful with his words and, perhaps conscious of the absence of his Turkish counterpart from the much-touted trilateral cooperation, silenced a Kurdish participant from Iraq, who lashed out against Turkey in general.
Listening to the Syrian president’s advisor Bouthaina Shaaban, one is led to believe that all the bad things that have happened in Syria since 2010 have been the result of a dual conspiracy of Turkey and the U.S., while al-Assad is an innocent victim, helped by virtuous Iran and Russia to fight global terrorism. Of course, she failed to mention the millions of people killed or harmed by the regime forces and/or the non-state actors supported by the regime.
Invitations to such events, especially at the ministerial level, normally go out at least a few months in advance. Sending an invitation to the Turkish Foreign Minister just one week before the event, as one of the organizers has claimed, was also, I believe, a message.