The crisis in Syria, as a consequence of the general growth of tensions in the Middle East, quickly turned into an acute problem of international dimension. The standoff, which began with an internal conflict, now affects the interests of many countries, including the great powers, and the further course of events not only in the Middle East but in the whole world largely depends on its outcome.
In recent months I have had many meetings with representatives of the warring parties in Syria and listened to their arguments. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, his closest aides, opposition leaders, and religious and public figures – all of them say they act in the name of “the supreme interests of the people and the nation.” However, their scenarios for the country’s development are not impressive. Their views are biased, and their approaches are old-fashioned and remote from life. They are unable to set forward-looking goals. The impression is that they still live somewhere in the late 1980s. Strangely enough, even young people, who want to play the leading social and political role in their country, have as archaic views.
The confrontation going on in Syria now is not between political platforms or programs, but between clans, between personal and group ambitions. It is too early yet to say that there are forces in Syria that could offer a forward-looking development model for their country. This is why one should not be hasty in choosing long-term partners, as there is a risk of making a wrong move.
Many people in the world accuse Moscow of supporting a “force of the past” – the Assad regime which is increasingly losing ground. In return, Russia has accused a number of countries of siding with opposition leaders, while having a very vague idea as to where these people can bring their country. The question arises: What if all the parties to the conflict are not up to the mark? How to make the right choice if there are no good options? This is not the first time that a situation like this arises. Suffice it to recall the events, sorrowful for the entire international community, which accompanied the collapse of Yugoslavia, when many large states hastened to find the “right” partner among criminal elements in the opposing forces – Serbs, Croats, and the so-called Muslims.
Syria today is a country that is gradually sinking into civil war. The government’s prestige is low. However, many people support the regime, fearing things will get even worse if it goes. There are grounds for such fears. Syria cannot boast of technological advancements or economic prosperity. But it has more mundane achievements that are important to everyone in the country. For example, prices for food and other essential items are among the lowest in the world. Will the situation remain the same if new leaders come to power? I don’t think so.
There are no prerequisites in Syria for quickly overcoming the current dangerous impasse. The national dialogue, held under the authorities’ “supervision,” is slack, and the reforms are belated, slow and ad hoc. In the meantime, the opposition remains passive about the reforms, not proposing anything that could promote them, as if things will work out by themselves after the “hated dictatorship” is overthrown.
DYSFUNCTION OF THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY
In a situation like this, much depends on external factors. However, the developments in Arab countries, including Syria, have highlighted the sorry state of international and regional security mechanisms. Let us be frank – the efforts made by the United Nations and its Security Council with regard to the Middle East have been clumsy and unconvincing.
For example, the UN Security Council made its first decisions on the situation in the region (specifically on Libya) on the basis of not verified information on real developments, but on emotional videos and photos and comments in the media. Most of the publications concerning the events in Libya, Syria and other countries were biased, but for a long time no one made any attempts to monitor the situation there and send international inspectors on fact-finding missions. It took a year to appoint a UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria in an attempt to resolve the Syrian conflict.
The incomprehensible and unbalanced position taken by some members of the UN and the Security Council was coupled with the actual lack of regional institutions that might effectively contribute to peace and stability in that important region. The Arab League once again demonstrated its disunity and susceptibility to external influences. Meanwhile, there were no other regional mechanisms in the Middle East. Parties to the conflict competed in pushing their own versions of what was going on through the media. The winners were those who had direct access to information channels, above all Western ones, and as a rule they were members of the opposition. The lack of a regional security mechanism, which would help monitor the situation and help the parties overcome the crisis, was felt particularly keenly in that situation.
Meanwhile, it is worth recalling that the Russian Federation made much effort in the past to create such a mechanism. Twenty years ago, in January 1992, a multilateral format of a Middle East peace process was launched in Moscow. It provided for international cooperation in regional security in the Middle East.
Your author participated in the preparation of that meeting of countries participants in the Middle East peace process, held at the level of foreign ministers, and in the meeting itself. The meeting established five multilateral working groups, including the Middle East working group on Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS).
The Moscow meeting not only proclaimed the beginning of ACRS activities but also helped to form a constructive regime for the group’s work, without undue emotional factors. The group was co-chaired by Russia and the United States. Between 1992-1996, it held six plenary sessions. Until 1994, they were held alternately in Moscow and Washington. In May 1994, the group met in Doha, and in December of the same year, in Tunisia. In 1993, expert-level meetings began to be held between the plenaries, which focused on “conceptual” and “operational” issues.
The “conceptual” issues, discussed by three sessions, included arms control, the establishment of a regional security system, and delineation of the region for arms control purposes. The group adopted a broad interpretation of the future security system, including in it such countries as Turkey and Iran. There is obviously a direct link between this interpretation and the Greater Middle East concept introduced by U.S. President George W. Bush in 2004.
Russia welcomed Jordan’s proposal to establish a regional arms control and security center. Parties agreed to establish such a center in Amman with associated centers in Tunis and Doha. These plans, if materialized, would have helped create an efficient quick-reaction system capable of countering threats to countries in the region. If such a system had been built, today there would be a ready-to-use mechanism for monitoring the situation, and a good offices mission could be promptly sent to this or that location.
However, the fruitful efforts by ACRS to create such mechanisms were suspended in 1996. The leaders of several Arab countries, especially Egypt, argued that the multilateral format gave Israel “legitimate” access to Arab countries and that therefore it was allegedly of greater value to Israelis than to Arabs. Against the backdrop of dramatic events in the Palestinian territories during that period, Arabs, on the initiative of Cairo, decided to refrain from participating in the working groups. That was a serious mistake.
Four years later, in early February 2000, Moscow hosted a meeting of the parties to multilateral talks on the Middle East at the level of foreign ministers. It was attended by representatives of the co-sponsors, Russia and the United States, as well as the foreign ministers of Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Tunisia, Norway, Switzerland, Canada and Japan. Also present at the meeting were the Chairman of the Council of the European Union, representatives of the Palestinian National Authority, Saudi Arabia, China and Switzerland, and a UN special coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process. As Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Department of the Russian Foreign Ministry, I was instructed to lead the group that prepared and organized the meeting.
The meeting was the first international forum hosted by Vladimir Putin, who had just been appointed acting president of the Russian Federation. Addressing the guests, he expressed the hope that the Moscow meeting would help to restore full-format talks on the Middle East and resume international cooperation in building a collective security system in the region under international guarantees. The meeting decided to resume the peace process in its multilateral dimension. However, the momentum given by the meeting was later lost as there again emerged differences in the parties’ positions and the situation in the Palestinian Territories became aggravated.
WAYS OUT OF THE IMPASSE
What can be done now to renew the momentum in a key area for the Middle East – the creation of a system of interstate relations based on peace and security? After the Arab Spring, two sets of regional security problems have come to light in the Middle East.
The first one is the confrontation between Arab countries and Israel, rooted in the lack of regulation in Arab-Israeli relations in all areas.
The second one is conflicts, mainly internal, caused by changes of political regimes in several Arab countries.
First of all, it is necessary to determine the status of the ideas of Arab-Israeli settlement. To date, success has been achieved in those segments of the crisis that were relatively easy to settle through a delimitation strategy, including territorial delimitation (peace treaties between Egypt and Israel, and between Jordan and Israel). But this method has revealed its limitations in some very difficult cases. First of all, this refers to the key problem – the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
It is becoming increasingly clear that a new strategy is needed to find a security formula for the Palestinian and Israeli lands. It is time to admit the limitations of attempts to separate all aspects of the functioning of government agencies on the small-scale area of the Palestinian-Israeli confrontation. The delimitation strategy should be complemented with joint efforts of the parties to find common security and peaceful reconstruction patterns, including the creation of a common security space for all Palestinian and Israeli lands. These efforts may require establishing powerful and authoritative bodies for joint monitoring of the situation and decision-making, with legislative and administrative powers, and building an effective system of coordinated practical measures, for example, joint patrolling. This security system, bilateral or even multilateral (if representatives of third countries are involved), must be organically linked to the regional collective security system.
It is time to make decisions on a number of complex issues, in particular, Iran’s nuclear programs which evoke serious concern in many countries. Considering Israel’s concern and many other international and regional factors, the Iranian nuclear issue should be viewed in conjunction with the formation of reliable non-proliferation regimes in the Middle East.
Of course, it is hard to dispute the view that the development of even purely peaceful nuclear programs objectively leads to the creation of prerequisites (intellectual, technical and industrial) for strengthening defense capabilities. At the same time, developing countries will hardly agree that, because of a hypothetical possibility that they may develop nuclear weapons, they should restrict their research and other efforts for peaceful uses of nuclear energy. It would be more logical to take not purely restrictive measures but a set of measures aimed at assisting non-nuclear states – provided there is a rigid mechanism of control and support for their nuclear programs. A proposal for such cooperation, made by Russia, is to be complemented with relevant efficient mechanisms.
Another aspect important for a regional security system is the proactive creation of regional and international conditions under which there would be no motives for countries to transform their peaceful nuclear programs into military ones. In addition, a regional security system must be capable of meeting new challenges through a monitoring system and good offices for opposing forces in case of crisis in countries of the region.
On the whole, efforts must be stepped up to create a conceptual basis for serving the future regional security system in the Middle East. As experience shows, the creation of such a system takes at least three main components:
a political document codifying principles of relations between states in the region, and general rules for the operation of the regional security system;
a mechanism for practical cooperation in the sphere of security, which would include a system of commitments, and agencies that would work out common approaches to security and implement them in practice;
a well-developed “periphery” of confidence-building measures, including measures to verify countries’ compliance with their commitments and with the rules of conduct declared by them, including with regard to their own population. In addition, new-generation confidence-building measures must be worked out to facilitate the settlement of internal political crises and conflict situations.
Creating a new system of inter-regional security in the Middle East requires, above all, resuming the multilateral Middle East peace process. Russia could undertake such an initiative. The process should be started with four consecutive steps.
The first step is to resume the multilateral format of negotiations on the Middle East, and activities of a working group on security.
The second step is to work out a comprehensive concept of security in the Middle East, which would provide for mutual consideration and linkage of interests and concerns of all major countries in the region. Such a concept must take into account the lessons of the Arab Spring.
The third step is to hold an international public and political forum to accept the regional security concept. The forum should involve experts on the Middle East and political, public and religious figures. Upon the forum’s conclusion, the parties concerned (government agencies) will be sent packages of documents that will explain the essence of the concept.
The fourth step is to convene an international conference on a comprehensive settlement in the Middle East, involving representatives of the governments of the states concerned.
Within the framework of such a forum, it will be possible to complete the creation of instruments for maintaining peace and security in the region, for example, a Center for Conflict Prevention, Monitoring and Peacekeeping. It is becoming increasingly clear that the security problems of the Middle East must be addressed comprehensively, on the basis of a program of action, which should be adopted by countries in the region and the international community as a whole in the nearest future. This measure will help overcome a new division, now emerging in the region over the events in Syria, and consequences of the present failure of security mechanisms in Middle East countries.