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Russia surges in the Middle East

The last word on the messy western intervention in Libya is far from known. Who would have thought that one of the first world dignitaries to travel to Tripoli to greet the new leadership pitchforked by the NATO into power, and to offer to it the hand of eternal friendship would be the foreign minister of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi? What splendid irony! Barack Obama leaves from behind and Salehi leads from the front! On the other hand, Turkey’s main opposition party CHP (founded by Kemal Ataturk) warns that Arab Spring ‘risks bearing islamist fruit’.  

But the lessons of the West’s Libyan war are sinking in and it is most evident in the ‘hardening’ of the Russian regional policies in the Middle East. Plainly put, Russia waffled over Libya (which was incomprehensible, given its fabulous ‘Orientalists’ and its rich intellectual resources on the history and politics of that region). Suffice to say, Russian foreign ministry is back on the driving seat and there is a manifest resolve today in Moscow that ‘Libya’ shouldn’t repeat elsewhere in the Middle East. The manner in which FM Sergey Lavrov spoke out on Syria – that Russia will not “allow allow anything like this to happen in the future” – and the place from where he spoke out – Abu Dhabi – merit attention. 
Russia is perturbed that the NATO intervention in Libya impacts on the international system as a whole. Thus, Russia has begun blocking the US moves to create new pretexts to act against Iran. Russia has also acted assertively to scotch the move by the US and its allies to create a regional security architecture in the Central and South Asian regions that could turn out to be a handle to interfere in the regional issues. Equally, the US and NATO’s ‘Greater Middle East’ project on the whole is viewed with suspicion. 
Does it mean a cold-war style confrontation with the US? Far from it. The Russian policies in the Middle East are aimed at casting its net wide and expanding its influence, establishing empathy and developing mutual understanding, identifying and building on commonalities with a view to evolve new and enduring principles of cooperation – rather than to create ‘blocs’. Thus, the first ministerial level ‘Strategic Dialogue’ with the GCC is a brilliant initiative. What Lavrov could successfully highlight is that the GCC states have probably greater affinities with Russia with regard to the range of burning issues – Arab Spring or the multipolar world or the Palestinian problem – than they have with their closest traditional ally, the United States.  
What does Russia look for in the GCC? Of course, trade and investment are of great interest. Russia would be willing to tap into the GCC states’ search for new partners in the downstream of the global financial crisis. Lavrov repeatedly stressed that ties with the Arab Islamic world is a priority for Russian foreign policy. He outlined a common approach to the Arab Spring: 
“No matter how acute the overdue domestic problems may be, they can and should be resolved peacefully, via a national dialogue involving all political, ethnic and religious forces and population groups. External assistance for the settlement of internal conflicts should be predicated on these approaches and carried out with the utmost responsibility and taking into consideration the real needs and interests of the citizens of the states of the Middle East and North Africa. Relevant decisions of the UN Security Council should be formulated based on objective facts, in a rigid international legal framework and should be undeviatingly adhered to.”  
Conceivably, this comes very close to the Indian position. By the way, Damascus has proposed to the Arab League that it would like representatives of Russia, China, Brazil and India to be present at the proposed national dialogue with the Syrian opposition. 

Posted in Politics.

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