MOSCOW, February 20. /TASS/. Participants in the conference ‘Russia in the Middle East: Playing in All Fields’ held by the Valdai International Discussion Club managed to discuss practically all the pressure points of the current situation in the region during the first day of discussions.
The debates covered the crisis in Syria, the situation in Yemen, the Kurdish problem, the Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement, and the aggravating tensions between Israel and Iran.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, the Syrian President’s advisor Bouthaina Shaaban, and the UN deputy envoy for Syria, Ramzi Izzeddin Ramzi, took part in the opening of the session.
This is a seventh conference in the series and each time it brings together an increasingly bigger number of high-rank invitees every time - the fact that shows in bold relief Russia’s policy in the Middle East has turned it into a universal mediator for most countries there, believes Andrei Bystritsky, the chairman of Valdai Club assistance and development council.
"Russia is trusted as a strong independent country that is playing the role of an important political and practical mediator in the region, if you take the situation around Syria," he told TASS.
Quite expectably, Syria became the centerpiece of the most heated debate. None of the speakers who took the floor managed to fit into the specified time bracket. Andrei Bystritsky explained for it by saying the process of ‘grinding in’ was afoot following the defeat of the Islamic State grouping, "as everyone is trying to make out the configuration of further discussions of Syria’s future."
It was clear from the number of questions the participants addressed to Sergei Lavrov the majority of attendees had chosen him as the source of a possible recipe for peace settlement in the war-torn country.
"The crux of the matter is not what Russia will do but, rather, what the US won’t do," Lavrov said. He urged the Americans "to refrain from playing with fire in Syria and to check their own steps" proceeding from the interests of the Syrian people and the region on the whole.
Like many other speakers, Lavrov voiced concern over the US attempts "to dissect Syria".
"Apprehensions of this kind spring up after you get familiarized with the plans the Americans have begun to implement on the ground, and primarily to the east of the Euphrates, on the spaces between the river and the Syrian-Iraqi and the Syrian-Turkish borders.
The importance of preventing Syria’s disintegration was highlighted by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, who is the Russian President’s special envoy to the Middle and North Africa.
He recalled that Russia, Iran and Turkey, the guarantor countries of the Astana format of consultations on Syria’s future had said from the very start the de-escalation zones in Syria should have an exceptionally temporary character.
"These zones are needed from the point of view of stopping the combat operations but it’s totally inadmissible to turn them into zones of influence of foreign countries," Bogdanov said.
Iranian Foreign Mohammad Javad Zarif made an emotional speech, in which he accused the US of acting in Syria like violent madmen. He believes that a new wave of occupation and foreign intervention, and particularly on the part of the US, is taking place there. Along with it, "the region is witnessing the inception of processes that will have really long-term aftermaths," Zarif said.
He expressed sympathy for the Kurds. "Unfortunately, we can see the shortsighted striving by the US to play the geopolitical games that are doing harm to the Kurdish population," he said.
Right in the middle of the session, reports appeared saying the Kurdish armed units calling themselves the Forces of Popular Self-Defense would cede several positions in the city of Afrin [65 km away from Aleppo] and in the areas along the Syrian-Turkish border to the Syrian Army.
Lavrov linked the Turkish military’s actions to the provocative steps made by the US.
"They actually drew the units of the Democratic Union Kurdish party into their actions to destroy Syria’s territorial integrity and this resulted in the aggravation of relations with Turkey," he said.
Javad Zarif said in this connection Turkey’s concern over the situation in Syria was understandable but "an invasion of another country’s territory can’t resolve the problem."
The Syrian presidential advisor Bouthaina Shaaban voiced the apprehensions that NATO would support Turkey on the face of any surge of tensions in Syria. She told reporters the Syria authorities were not discussing the operation in Afrin with the Turks.
Mikhail Bogdanov turned to the Palestinian-Israeli problem, warning the audience that the conflict was heading at full tilt towards the point of non-return. He stated that the "two-nations-two-states" formula was in jeopardy at the moment.
He obviously disappointed the gathering when he said Russia did not have a plug-and-play pattern for Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement but still Moscow was prepared to do everything in its power to organize direct dialogue between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
Bogdanov also mentioned the forthcoming relocation of the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. The Americans’ move poured cold water on many regional players, showing to them the faultiness of the US monopoly for peace settlement in the Middle East.
"International assistance to the [Palestinian-Israeli] negotiation is the only thing that’s possible," he said. "There should be bilateral talks. In this context, the Russian leadership’s proposal for an immediate direct summit meeting between the heads of the Palestinian Authority and Israel appears to be highly needed."