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Russia embarks on a diplomatic offensive in the Middle East

February 22, 2013, 11:48 UTC+3

The first session of the Russian-Arab cooperation forum was held in Moscow on Wednesday

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The first session of the Russian-Arab cooperation forum was held in Moscow on Wednesday. Thus, Moscow made an attempt to regain the positions in the Middle East it has lost after the “Arab Spring.” Along with efforts to launch a dialogue between the Syrian opposition and the Bashar Assad regime, Russia is seeking to revive the Palestinian-Israeli dialogue and organize a conference of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. Experts however are skeptical about a possibility of a breakthrough in the Middle East and say that Moscow’s efforts might yield only image-related dividends.

Moscow has been waiting for three years for such a meeting with representatives from the Arab world, writes the Kommersant newspaper. Opening the first session of the Russia-Arab ministerial-level cooperation forum, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke about the region’s key problems. Until recently, Moscow’s initiatives on these problems have been either rejected by the Arab world (like in the case of the Syrian crisis) or retrained by Israel (like it was in the case of the Palestinian-Israeli process and the idea of a regional nuclear-free zone conference).

Addressing the Arab ministers and Secretary-General of the League of Arab States Nabil Elaraby, Lavrov gave to understand that Moscow would not stay aside beating off accusations of aiding and abetting the Assad regime but would rather take a diplomatic attack instead. The situation in Syria, where there seems to be no way out of the confrontation between President Assad and the armed opposition, prompts Moscow to act resolutely. This situation, according to Moscow, brings to the fore Russia’s idea of inter-Syrian settlement as an alternative to the use of external force to overthrow the Syrian regime. “It is obvious that staking on a force solution from any part does not work. Now it is becoming to be clear that a dialogue is needed,” Lavrov said.

The Syrian crisis was among the topics discussed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and United States Secretary of State John Kerry during their recent telephone conversation, the newspaper writes. Moscow and Washington, which have had opposite approaches to the Syrian problem, now have to try to find some common language. So far however there is a wide gap between their positions.

Moscow is not giving up alternative attempts to launch a dialogue between the Syrian authorities and the opposition, on the background of the United States’ efforts. “Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem and the leader of Syria’s opposition National Coalition, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, might meet in Moscow for talks, if they want,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov was quoted as saying on Tuesday. Ahead of the Russian-Arab forum, Lavrov said the Syrian minister was expected in Moscow already next Monday. According to the Russian foreign minister, the Russian side plans to discuss steps that might facilitate the beginning of dialogue in Syria. “We are conducting such work with the opposition as well. We have not ever stopped it either with the government, or with those who oppose it,” he said.

Experts however are skeptical about Moscow’s efforts in the Middle East. “The existence of a couple of dozens Arab countries is very advantageous for the Russian foreign ministry. First, it is an excuse to keep a whole army of diplomats and experts in Arab studies. Second, it makes it possible for Moscow to be among power players as a co-sponsor of the Middle East peace process, which is very honorable but rather pointless for the Palestinian-Israeli settlement,” Yevgeny Satanovsky, the president of the Institute of the Middle East, told the Kommersant. According to the expert, it is Moscow’s geopolitical rivals – Salafi kings of the Gulf, Turkey, and the United States – who are playing first fiddle in the region. That is why whatever attempt Moscow is taking to enhance its role looks rather phantom. “Nonetheless, it does not rule out manoeuvres of the players around Russia, just what we are witnessing now,” the experts said.

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