Tuesday, 26 November 2013 15:37

Interview with Irina Zvyagelskaya: all over the Middle East

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Maria Dubovikova: I would like to start our conversation with the question we ask all the IMESClub experts: How would you characterize this decade for the Middle East?

Irina Zviagelskaya: Decade? If you tell me at what time the countdown begins?.. 

M.D. From 2003!

I.Z.: From 2003... Basically, it depends on what we are talking about. There is a number of problems, which, unfortunately, have remained unsolved, and have turned into a kind of Middle Eastern routine. I mean, first of all, the Arab-Israeli conflict. Unfortunately this conflict has not undergone any major positive changes. And we still say that it is necessary for the Palestinians to make a deal with Israel, for Israel  - to be more attentive to the Arab Peace Initiative, and for the members of the "Quartet" - to be more active in this direction. But what happens... From time to time, as we know, the Israelis and the Palestinians gather and talk, and even now there are ongoing negotiations. But, unfortunately, the result is very negative, just as expected. And I fear that the conflict will continue for some time. 

As far as the overall situation in the Middle East is concerned, I believe that the changes are rather serious. First of all, they are connected with the change of regimes. These regimes were leaving for different reasons and on different occasions. In  2003, the U.S. and the allied forces invaded Iraq and the dictator Saddam Hussein was overthrown, which, unfortunately, has not led to a complete stabilization of the situation in Iraq, but to the radical  change of  interconfessional ratio in the political system. And I must say that general Saddam Hussein’s leave has marked the beginning of the leave of other leaders who had spent a long time at their places, and to whom we have accustomed. If Saddam Hussein’s leave was due to the external factor, other leaders, as we know, began leaving under the influence of the internal factors. Although I do not rule out the external pressure, which also took place. The update of the political face of the Arab world is quite a significant result of this decade.


M.D.: The Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar are beginning to play one of the key roles in the Middle East now. Due to huge financial resources they have potential influence and ability to push certain initiatives that will be in their geopolitical interests. From your point of view, is their influence on the development of the Middle East positive or negative?

I.Z.: Well, I would not put the question this way, as, if you say that they have a certain influence, pursuing their own interests, then it means that there may be some tactical changes in their position, because the interests are also changing, as well as the idea of what is required in the very moment, and what will be required in the future. But I would like to focus on another issue. First of all, this concerns Qatar. Saudi Arabia has been playing a rather important role in the region for a long time. But Qatar would like to be perceived as a new powerful player, especially in the context of the Arab awakening. A country that has vast financial resources, was able to increase its influence not only using traditional methods, such as arms shipments, aid to the forces solving the problems important for Qatar, and the direct military actions, as it was in Libya, but also by the means of a huge media resource. It is an amazing thing. Because a small Qatar has managed to create such media resource, that puts it in line with the most advanced nations of the world. And I believe that this is an achievement. And I want to focus attention on this. The leverage is changing. And that is very important. Even a small country that we all considered quite a traditional state from a purely formal point of view, basing on its political system, is able to use such instruments. This very traditional state easily manipulates and uses modern methods to influence the minds.


M.D.: Let's go a bit back to the beginning of our interview. You have already mentioned the Arab-Israeli conflict. How has the current situation in the region influenced it? How much have the Arab Spring, the Syrian problem affected the opportunity to resolve the conflict?

I.Z.: There is an opinion, and it is essentially possible to agree with, that as a result of all those violent processes taking place in the Middle East and the Arab world, the Arab-Israeli and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular, has faded into the insignificance. It is not insistent anymore. The world community has focused its attention entirely on other countries and processes. But while acknowledging the validity of this conclusion, I still believe that we cannot say that what is happening in the Arab world has just finally put an end to the possibility of a settlement. It was always something not too certain, and it did not change. I would not dramatize the situation too much in this case. It is bad in itself. But you can look at it in a different way. On the one hand, of course, in the current circumstances Israel is not particularly interested in returning the territories, in taking some steps, quite painful for the country, that are, moreover, difficult to explain to a large part of the Israeli population. But on the other hand, in the face of large-scale uncertainty that rules over the whole region, any kind of certainty in its relations with Palestine would be to its advantage. So I'm not sure that everything is lost. But I am not optimistic. I think that a lot of effort will be required to solve this problem.


M.D.: And how does the changes in the US policy, in the US attitude to the conflict, to Israel and current establishing of bridges with Iran, with the new president Rouhani, influence the process of conflict resolution?

I.Z.: The U.S. attempts to enter into a real dialogue with Rouhani respond primarily to American interests. And I'm not sure if it leads to deterioration in US-Israeli relations. Of course, Israel can perceive it rather negatively. But it seems to me that, however, this will not have any effect on Israel. It all depends on what will be the outcome of these negotiations. At the same time, there is a slight possibility that Iran will completely renounce its nuclear program. I do not believe in it, there are too many objects that will obviously continue to work. So, since there is uncertainty, the desire of Israel to consider Iran as an existential threat will remain. Even if the United States conduct negotiations with Iran, this threat will persist, because Israel is looking at Iran from its own point of view. There is a red line for Israel about which it is constantly talking. Actually this red line was first mentioned in the General Assembly by Netanyahu. Israel will consider the possibility of its own unilateral action. Clearly this shows the desire to chill the US willingness to establish a dialogue with Iran. We'll see what happens. In general, while there are changes, some things in the Middle East remain constant. I am not sure whether it is fortunate or not. And in particular, I am not sure that the arrival of a new president can radically change Iranian policy in the region and make it give up the nuclear program.


M.D. From your point of view, will the Syrian civil war play a positive or a negative role in the relations between Russia and the United States, particularly in regard to all the Middle East problems?

I.Z.: I have always been thinking that, unfortunately, Syria has recently become a rather sharp issue dividing Russia and the United States due to a number of circumstances. And this is a dangerous trend. In the end, it's clear that our relations with the U.S. are very important as any relations between two great powers, influencing the development of world. It causes real anxiety when such a question as Syrian, which, despite its significance is still not ranked first in the United States and Russia priorities, becomes a bone of contention, and contributes to the deterioration of relations not only in the Middle East, but also beyond its boundaries. I consider positive what happened as a result of the initiative to destroy the Syrian chemical weapons. And not only because our diplomacy has shown its professionalism in this case. I think that the main positive part is just the fact that it was a compromise situation. That both the U.S. and Russia were able to find common ground on this issue, were able to feel how important this question is for the future joint steps for a political settlement of the situation. In this case, it's clear that the destruction of chemical weapons does not affect the civil war and the opposition parties per se. But this reveals a very important point. The fact is that in current situation Assad becomes a partner in certain activities and negotiations. In these circumstances it is not possible to ignore him. Anyway, his willingness to destroy weapons and to participate in this process enhances his legitimacy. Therefore, in my opinion, all the useless suggestions that “he should go away first, and then we'll talk”, become irrelevant. There are various ways to treat Al Assad. But the fact remains certain. The agreement on the national reconciliation will be impossible without his participation. He may not personally take part in negotiations, but it will still involve people that are part of his entourage, who are from his government. In my opinion this is the starting point. The opposition requirements are unrealistic. But this just affirms that the US and Russia should act together. Although I believe their ability to influence the rivals is still limited, however, given the United States and its allies, and given the position of Russia, we can hope that eventually, maybe not now, we will still be able to induce the parties to sit down at the negotiating table.


M.D. Do you think Geneva-2 will eventually take place? Chances that it won’t take place are still rather strong. And if it never takes place, what are the consequences of such a failure for states, both regional and extra-regional, in particular, such as the U.S., Russia, say, France?

I.Z.: Well, I can say that, of course, there is very little hope that it will be held in the near future. And this is connected, first of all, as we all know, with a very fragmented opposition. Various organizations within the opposition hold different opinions, always the hard ones. The director of our institute Vitaly Naumkin even said that it is better not to try to create a single delegation of the opposition, but to let them form three or four delegations, and make each put its own signature. This option is also theoretically possible. It is extremely difficult to imagine how they can be gathered under one roof, though some attempts have already been made. Lets suppose, that despite all the efforts the Geneva-2 will not take place. I think it will bode ill. Firstly, it will show an absolute weakness of the international community. Its inability to solve such problem as a termination of a bloody conflict, civil war in a relatively small Middle Eastern country. Secondly, I believe, it will show a very low level of interaction between the global and regional international actors, which is also a very negative factor. And basically, I think, if no political decisions are taken, no one knows for how long people will continue to suffer and die in Syria. We must do everything to stop this process.

Read 10479 times Last modified on Sunday, 15 March 2015 14:32
Irina Zvyagelskaya

Irina Zviagelskaya is a Chief Researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.