Middle East officials flocking to Moscow – is there a big deal to be made before Putin meets Trump?

Moscow is awash this week with Middle East movers and shakers, apparently eager to have a word with Vladimir Putin ahead of his meeting with Trump. Is there a big ME deal in the making? On Events talks to analysts.

Before having a face-off with his US counterpart in Helsinki next week, President Putin is to have several high-profile meetings in Russia. There is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ali Akbar Velayati, the foreign policy aide to Iran’s Supreme Leader. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will be in Moscow in time to watch the World Cup finals on Sunday and is expected to meet Putin. Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar, will also be among the spectators, although whether he would talk with Putin is yet to be confirmed.

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Amid the flurry of visits there is some speculation in the media that a grand deal between the US and Russia, which would involve a rebalancing of power in the Middle East, may come out from the Helsinki talks and that regional players are making an 11th-hour bid to ensure that their interests would be taken into consideration.

Such a scenario is possible, but highly unlikely, because it would be inconsistent with Russia’s current policies in the Middle East, Grigory Lukyanov, a Middle East analyst and senior lecturer at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, told Eyes On Events.

“There are concerns in Damascus and Tehran that the course which Russia had in foreign policy over the past years, may take a shift similarly to how it happened in the past, when in pursuit of some global agreement with the US, Russia would sacrifice its Middle Eastern achievements and interests that it perceived secondary,” he said.

The sentiment is particularly strong in some Iranian political circles, which view Moscow as unreliable and its interests inconsistent with those of Tehran, he said. Such concerns don’t seem to be backed by facts and are inconsistent with Russia’s own interests in the region.

‘US - a beautiful and rich, but air-headed girl’

One should not overestimate how much Donald Trump may realistically offer in Helsinki to have Russia make any major policy change and how tempting this offer would be for Putin, Sergey Balmasov, a senior analyst at the Center for Crisis Society, a Moscow-based think tank, told Eyes On Events.

“The moods of America are like the moods of a very beautiful and rich, but air-headed girl. Today you flirt with her, and the next day you find relations with that guy Iran spoiled. Such things require great care, and people in the Russian foreign ministry realize it well,” he explained. “And anyway, global issues cannot be solved Gorbachev-style with a stroke of a pen.”

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‘Russia offers solutions US failed to’

Russia’s involvement in Syria, which changed the situation dramatically from the hopeless slide towards total disintegration in 2014 to the relative stability of today, is a major point of leverage for Moscow in regional politics, Balmasov said. Tactical considerations like the presence of pro-Iranian troops in southern Syria and Israel’s combative reaction to it, are of course important, but the really important issue for the country would be post-war reconstruction and who would pay for it.

Lukyanov agrees that Moscow would win nothing from siding with either party involved in the Middle East. Russia’s current policy in this region is to play its own game while taking into account the interests of other players. The meetings with Netanyahu and Velayati are most likely just meant to keep Putin up to date with the positions of Israel and Iran respectively, he believes.

At the moment Russia sees a more prominent place for itself in the Middle East, but the role it is ready to play is limited, compared to other global players, he said.

“Russia’s strong point now is the ability and willingness to offer solutions to security problems. The US failed in that regard in Iraq and some other places,” Lukyanov said. “But Russia cannot and is not trying to replace the US as a primary trade partner for Middle Eastern nations. Same is true about replacing China or Europe."

“Solving security issues requires constructive dialogue with stakeholders, and the Syrian experience is viewed by the Russian leadership as more than constructive. Many people in the Middle Eastern nations, Arab or otherwise, share this position,” he added.

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