Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Perspective of Russia Towards The Arab Revolution and The Syrian Problem: The Conclusions of The Valdai Forum

On 17-18 February, the third conference of the Middle East Section of Valdai International Discussion Club was held in Sochi, Russia. The prominent participants from Russia, Turkey, the Middle East, the USA, the Europe and the Asia have attended in the conference entitled “Transformation in the Middle East and Russia’s Interests”. Russian Federation Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov delivered the opening speech. For two days, more than eighty experts discussed the transformation in the Middle East, the lessons learned from the Libya case, the role of Islam in popular movements, the winners and the losers of the Arab Spring, the Middle East peace process, scenarios for the upcoming period and solution proposals for a peaceful transition. As well as these are the main themes, the Syrian problem was the most prominent theme in each session. Turkey was located in the center due to the discussions of playing a central role in Syria and a model for governance in the region. Through this conference, the Russian side had the opportunity to observe both the perspectives about the developments in the Middle East of the participants coming from the region and how the actors that have an influence on the process perceive the change in the Middle East and according to what conditions those actors adopt a position. Besides, it had a chance to express the position of Russia to the opinion leaders of all the actors.

The first impression from the statements in the sessions and the discussions during the pauses is that Russia is likely to be worried, frustrated and resistant about Syria and ready for all kind of scenarios. In the opening speech Russian Federation Deputy Foreign Minister revealed that they view the incidents differently in every country by describing some of the popular movements as a revolution and some of them as a rebellion. They clearly presented that they do not regard the developments as a revolutionary movement particularly in Syria. The Russian side also indicated in its following statements that they view the armed groups and the external influences as the resource of the instability in Syria, rather than the regime itself. Although they did not mention specifically, they implied that both Free Syrian Army and possibly the role played by the USA, France, Turkey and the Gulf countries. The Deputy Minister’s statements: “We live in the region. We are not out of the region and we have to find a solution for us” served as a message both for the West “not to interfere with the Syria problem externally” and for the region “not to cooperate with the West about the Syrian issue”. Thus, Russia put forward its aim to find solutions through the regional initiatives into the problem. It is also stated by a high-level official that they are against an international intervention. Bogdanov remarked that despite the instability in Syria it is now better than the incidents in case of possible an intervention and the Libya example sets a good lesson in this respect. Russia is obviously in search of solving the problem by means of Syria and the region. For this reason, they advocate a dialogue process between the regime and the opposition as a procedure to follow. Within this framework, it had importance that Bogdanov indicated they negotiated with the Syrian opposition. Above all, with these statements, Russia proved that they try not to let the West take the control of the progress in Syria. However, the other important inference of this statement is that Russia has recognized that the former regime has no chance to survive as it used to and put pressure on the regime to make some expansion. On the other hand, the negotiations with the opposition show us that Russia makes efforts just in case after Assad.The fact that the opposition puts forward the withdrawal of Assad family and its kin from the power as a precondition, however, poses challenges for Russia. Bogdanov stated that they support “a negotiation process without preconditions” between the sides. Probably, the precondition of the pro-regime side is that they will not negotiate with any armed groups, since the Russian Deputy Minister told about their expectations that the Syrian opposition ought to keep its distance with the armed groups. In parallel, all of the other Russian participants also provided the pro-status quo attitude in Syria and sought to present rightful justifications. The argument according to a public opinion poll in Qatar that the majority of the Syrian people supports that Assad regime, was consistently accentuated. In other words, Russia perceives the problem as an instability caused by the criminal organizations with foreign support rather than a legitimacy issue. Russia, emphasizing that the West is practicing double standard since it does not put pressure on many regional countries that are not ruled by democracy, claims that the West poses a problem which does not exist in other regional countries by putting forward the question why there is no incidents in these countries. The statements of a Russian participant that many segments in the country view the Bashar al-Assad’s presence as their security assurance and they are on the regime’s,side therefore, all actors are supposed to guarantee the lives and the positions of aforementioned groups, were an important analysis for the solution of the problem.

Because the Syria was at the top of the agenda, the comments of two Syrians, one from Syria, the other one from abroad, were noted carefully. The main conclusion of two spokesmen’s statements is that the Syrians also have no idea about what is going on in Syria. The statement of Prof. Dr. Elias Samo from the University of Aleppo that “the greatest victim in Syria is the reality itself”, was the best explanation to describe the situation. The other conclusion is that the great majority of the population is in agreement about the change being peaceful. Everyone thinks that a sudden and radical change will cause more violence than the present situation. According to the explanation of Samo, the Syrian silent majority has an expectation in this way. Samir Taqi, chairman in a research center and living in Dubai, claimed that the regime has lost the control in 50% of Syria. Taqi defended that Russia ought to take an active role for a peaceful change without any foreign intervention in the country and a regional initiative including Turkey and the Gulf countries ought to be launched.

The Israeli participants’ comments showed that the developments in Syria are viewed as both an opportunity and a risk by Israel. As for that, a weak, divided Syria is assumed as an opportunity since it will not pose a threat in long term. On the other hand, the possibility that the regime may play the trump card to maintain its existence by attacking Israel provided it recognizes that it will collapse, has been assessed. Besides, it is thought that the mass destruction weapons, which Syria is believed to have, may be captured and used against Israel by some “irresponsible groups” in case the regime collapses. Israel takes into account that the conventional balance on behalf of Israel will be upset in case of a chaos in Syria, on the contrary the non-state actors that they cannot control may emerge as a new threat. Besides, losing some allies following the Arab Spring, the rising power of political Islam and the prevalence of the long-term instability in the region are also assessed as a threat.

The other prominent theme in the conference is the political Islam and the discussion that Turkey can become a model with regards to the Middle Eastern countries. Everyone accepted that the Islamic movements have gained power in the region. It was also discussed how these movements, which remained in the opposition for ages, will take a stand and what solutions they produce for concrete problems. It is generally accepted that Turkey has a democracy experience based on long years and thus, Turkey’s model cannot be practiced directly as a model for the region. It is stated that Turkey may serve as an example to show that “an Islamic movement can come to power through legitimate ways.” Many participants referred the evaluation of Mesut Yılmaz, the former Prime Minister of Turkey, that “the Islamic movements in Turkey gained their current position by competing for a long time within the rules of the democratic regime.” Yaşar Yakış, the former Foreign Minister of Turkey, made an objection to the “Islamic democracy” term and indicated that it would be appropriate to use the term “a democratic country of which the majority of the population formed by the Muslims.” Otherwise, these two explanations will bring along different perspectives and results. Another prominent subject in the Islam and democracy discussions is the question that “the Islamic movements can produce solutions for current issues or not.” One of the participants revealed the given expectations by stating that “people did not vote for the Islamic parties to have a place in heaven, yet to find solutions for daily problems and to have better living conditions.” It is said that the other element that make Turkey to be discussed as a model is the increase in its economic growth rate under the leadership of an Islamic movement. The opinion that the rising power of the Islamic movements either causes problems as long as they are alienated from the power or make them act more responsibly and adopt an all-embracing policy when they come to power, came into prominence.

In conclusion, there were different reactions about the perspective of Turkey’s attitude towards the Syrian issue. Some Syrian and regional participants, who supports the peaceful change in Syria, stated their disappointment about Turkey that it is supposed to be more patient for a peaceful transition and make an effort for it. All the more amazing, the supporters of the regime change are disappointed as well. According to them, Turkey ought to contribute more to the political and military opposition in Syria. Even this proves us how rough the Syria problem is and that it includes dilemmas.

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