‘It’s like before the First World War’: How US and Russia are battling for Middle East influence at rival summits

'It’s not a peace conference. This is about building an alliance'

Borzou Daragahi
Warsaw, Moscow
,Oliver Carroll
Thursday 14 February 2019 15:06 GMT
Mike Pence urges Europe to quit Iran nuclear deal

Duelling Middle East conferences unfolded in Poland and Russia on Thursday, highlighting the competition for influence and the hardening of geopolitical blocs confronting each other over the volatile region.

In Warsaw, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, vice president Mike Pence, and president Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner headlined what was billed as a “peace” conference, but amounted to an attempt to pressure sceptical allies into joining a gelling anti-Iran alliance that includes Israel and the Arabian Peninsula monarchies.

“Leaders from across the region agreed that the greatest threat to peace and security of the Middle East is the Islamic Republic of Iran,” said Mr Pence in a speech that cut between condemnation of Isis’ terrorism and Tehran’s Islamist populism.

“They’ve supported terrorist proxies and militias. The Iranian regime is the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world.”

Meanwhile, leaders of Russia, Iran, and Turkey, accompanied by senior military officials, gathered at the Black Sea resort town of Sochi as part of a Kremlin effort to manage the fallout of the eight-year conflict in Syria, which has become a key regional battleground.

“It’s like before the First World War or Second World War and you had two camps, you had two alliances,” said Robert Czulda, a professor of Middle Eastern Politics at the University of Lodz, Poland.

“Here in Warsaw, it’s not a peace conference. This is about building an alliance. It’s also very important for Russia to show the world that its also the leader of its own camp.”

Brian Hook, a special envoy for Iran policy at the State Department, speaking on the sidelines of the Warsaw conference, dismissed the Sochi conference, and hailed the unity of the US-led meeting. “It is not a parallel process,” he said. “We invited Russia and I think this was a missed opportunity for them.”

Both loose coalitions are riddled with deep disagreements and potentially explosive divisions.

Thursday’s summit in Sochi marks the fourth time the Russia-Iran-Turkey troika meet to discuss the future of Syria, and the first since the US announced its intention to withdraw from the region.

While Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Iran’s Hassan Rouhani, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan all came to together to discuss Syria’s future, they disagree on all three major topics on the agenda. The US withdrawal has exposed a particular difference of opinion in the troika over the future of Syria’s northeastern territories, currently controlled by Kurdish and US forces.

Here in Warsaw, it’s not a peace conference. This is about building an alliance. It’s also very important for Russia to show the world that its also the leader of its own camp 

Robert Czulda, Middle East professor 

Ankara, which sees Kurdish forces as a security threat, has its own military plans for the region. Earlier this week, Mr Erdogan offered an ultimatum to Kurdish forces to leave within a few weeks. But his position suits neither Moscow nor Tehran.

Speaking last Friday, Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Vershinin urged the need to avoid “destabilisation and chaos” following the US withdrawal.

On Monday, Russia’s defence minister Sergei Shoigu travelled to Ankara hoping to resolve differences, but The Independent understands the visit failed to produce real movement in positions.

Ankara is also fundamentally at odds with Moscow and Tehran over the future of northwest Syria, currently under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist group tha once allied with Al-Qaeda.

Turkey also disagrees with Iran over the future leadership in Damascus, with Ankara seeking a transition away from President Bashar al-Assad and Tehran and Moscow standing firmly behind the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

While Russia sees the pending withdrawal of US troops as a cause for consolidating its grip over Damascus, Iran also sees it as a way to push its influence westward, and position weaponry and allied personnel against Israel.

If the talks are to claim any progress, it will likely be on membership of the proposed UN-brokered post-war constitutional committee, said Yuri Barmin, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council.

“Given the difficulties elsewhere, Moscow is keen to get names on paper,” he said.

Regardless of what happens there, Russia will use Sochi to emphasise its role as a regional dealmaker, and the only global power able to contain Iran.

“The Poland summit might provide good media coverage and weird comments from Netanyahu,” said Mr Barmin. “But it is objectively a weak event, given the absence of Turkey and Iran, and the fact that it’s Moscow that’s talking to them.”

The US-led alliance is also riddled with contradictions and conflicting agendas.

“Both conferences seem to be in trouble,” said Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

“Warsaw is a conference without an agenda. And when you don’t have an agenda it means you don’t have agreement. And when you don’t have agreement you don’t have the diplomatic ‘umph’ to achieve objectives. Sochi has a common agenda to solve the Syrian civil war but there’s disagreement about the agenda items.”

Warsaw is a conference without an agenda. And when you don’t have an agenda it means you don’t have agreement 

Aaron Stein, director of Middle East at Foreign Policy Research Institute 

Poland’s foreign ministry boasted that more than 60 countries sent representatives. But many European countries sent junior diplomats or civil servants who served as the equivalent of note-takers. The conference was shrouded in secrecy, and no list of participants was made available, though the Arabian Peninsula states all sent their foreign ministers.

Mr Pence demanded that European countries abandon the 2015 nuclear deal penned with Iran by former US president Barack Obama and other world powers, and condemned the recent announcement of an EU financial mechanism for continuing trade with the Islamic Republic. But even Polish officials hosting the event, in hopes of securing a permanent US military base, voiced support for the nuclear deal.

While the US keeps saying that Iran is the key to stability and peace in the Middle East, many of Washington’s longtime allies adopt a far more nuanced stance about both Tehran and the region.

But while Mr Pence’s speech contained a number of claims that Iran’s support for the regime in Syria may implicate it morally in the humanitarian disaster that has befallen the country, the facts on the ground show that the humanitarian crises in Iraq and Yemen are largely the result of military operations by the US and its staunchest allies.

The US itself is badly divided on Middle East policy. Just hours before Mr Pence blamed Iran for the crisis in Yemen, US Congress voted to strip American support for the Saudi-led offensive against Iranian-backed Houthi fighters in control of the capital of the Arabian Peninsula nation.

Many scholars and diplomats have also questioned the coherence of US policy. The Trump administration says it wants to confront Iran even as it touts its withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan. Meanwhile Iranian-backed forces, including well-trained and battle-hardened Lebanese Hezbollah, remain in place.

Though the US is pursuing tightened sanctions on Iran and international companies, Russia, China, and Iraq – key economic access points for Iran – all rejected invitations to the conference.

Though Mr Netanyahu’s meetings with Arab foreign ministers was touted as historic, commentators in Israel described the summit as little more than a photo-op for scandal-ridden prime minister to adorn his campaign posters ahead of general elections in March.

In another perhaps inadvertent sign of criss-crossing agendas, Saudi Arabia reportedly placed an embargo on Poland’s meat exports, just as the summit got underway, sparking an outcry among Poles.

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