March 24, 2017

Can Moscow Be an Effective Mideast Mediator?

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow, Russia, March 9. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

Moscow increasingly aspires to play the role of mediator in the Middle East, but how seriously should we take this? Russia, along with Turkey and Iran, has been attempting to mediate between the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and some of its opponents in negotiations in the Kazakh capital, Astana, and in Geneva. There have also been reports that Moscow has not only offered to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but that it has even hosted some discussions between them. In addition, Moscow has offered to mediate between Israelis and Palestinians, and between warring factions in Yemen. There have been suggestions that Russia could mediate between opposing factions in Libya as well.

Moscow, it seems, wants to present itself as the solution to every problem in the region, or at least the go-to interlocutor with a unique ability to address the concerns of all responsible parties. The argument that Moscow puts forward in touting itself as the most suitable Middle East mediator is that Russia talks to all sides (except, of course, the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant and al-Qaeda) in any given Middle East conflict. The United States, by contrast, either does not talk with some Middle Eastern actors (such as the Syrian regime or Hizballah), or does not talk to them very effectively (such as Iran or the Palestine Liberation Organization).

In evaluating Soviet Middle East diplomacy in times past, Russian observers now believe that Moscow made a mistake in breaking diplomatic relations with Israel at the time of the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War. This was because when Arab governments decided they needed to reach a negotiated settlement with Israel, they turned to the United States, which had close ties to Israel, and not to the Soviet Union, which did not. And even when Moscow played an official role in convening various Middle East peace negotiations, the United States’ greater ability to work with Israel led to Moscow being sidelined in them. The apex of this process was U.S. diplomacy during and after the 1973 war, managed by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, in which the United States ensured that Israel was victorious but chastened, the Arabs defeated but not humiliated, the Russians engaged but as a supporting actor, and Washington positioned to communicate seriously with all parties offering to help them realize their post-conflict goals. Borrowing a phrase from his Watergate-embattled president, Richard Nixon, Kissinger called this positioning “the catbird seat.

These days, as Moscow sees it, the situation is reversed. It is Moscow that can talk to all sides (except the jihadists) in several conflicts while it is Washington that cannot or will not. This is especially true when it comes to Iran. Although the Obama administration did talk to Tehran about the Iranian nuclear accord, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared that the Islamic Republic would not talk to Washington about anything else. The Trump administration has made clear that it is not interested in negotiating with Iran anyway. Because it can and does interact regularly and often positively with Iran, Moscow is (by Russian logic) in a much better position to help others, too, mediate their differences with Iran.

Being able to talk to all sides (or even just the main ones) in a conflict, though, is not by itself enough to allow Russia to play the role of Mideast mediator effectively. A mediator may also need to be in a position to incentivize opposing sides in a conflict to reach an agreement. The 1978 Camp David Accords and the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, for example, were facilitated by the Carter administration committing the United States to provide billions of dollars of assistance annually to both Egypt and Israel – something the United States has done ever since then. Even when Washington was not central to the negotiating breakthrough – as in the secret Israel-PLO talks in Oslo that did not directly involve the United States – U.S. good offices, assurances, and financial and other inducements were invaluable in translating the basic Israeli-Palestinian understandings into a series of complex agreements that, however imperfect, remain in effect to this day.

Russia is highly unlikely to be willing or able to provide enough assistance, much less anything even approaching what the United States has been providing Egypt and Israel, or even the Palestinian Authority, to induce warring Middle Eastern actors to stop fighting. Indeed, Russia is seeking to persuade the West and Gulf Arabs to deliver the assistance that Moscow can’t or won’t provide with arguments such as “Peace in Syria is a global public good.” But, it is unlikely that others are going to be willing to pay the costs of making Russian mediation, and hence foreign policy, work, as demonstrated by the negative reaction to these arguments from Western and Gulf Arab participants at the Valdai Discussion Club conference on the Middle East in Moscow in February.

Of course, aiding various opposing sides by itself may not be enough to resolve a conflict between them anyway. Saudi-Iranian rivalry, for example, does not seem amenable to being resolved in this way – even if Russia (either alone or with others) were in a position to offer Saudi Arabia and Iran assistance. What might be required in that case instead is the ability to help Riyadh and Tehran agree to delineate and respect each other’s spheres of influence in the Middle East region. But unless these two parties are willing to contemplate such an arrangement which, in effect, would cede areas of hegemony to the other side while accepting restrictions on their own interests or ambitions, no external mediator – including Russia – is likely to succeed in coaxing or cajoling them to do so.

Another problem for Moscow is that even if a party to an ongoing conflict has reasonably good relations with Russia, it might not want it as a mediator. During Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most recent meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he reportedly argued that Moscow was in a strong position to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians due to Russia’s close ties to the PLO – effectively adopting a mirror image of Washington’s claim that its “special relationship” with Israel positions the United States as the optimal broker – and offered to step in. Seemingly unimpressed, Netanyahu apparently turned down Putin’s offer. In this case, not only does Russia have insufficient resources to incentivize Israel to compromise with the Palestinians, but Moscow is not in any position to persuade or coerce Netanyahu to pursue an agreement if he does not want to.

Yet another problem Moscow faces in being an effective Middle East mediator is that it may face competition for this role – and not just from Washington. China, for example, has reportedly offered to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran. If Riyadh and Tehran really were willing to have their differences mediated, China might be a far more attractive third party for both of them than Russia. Beijing, after all, can offer far more in terms of trade and investment than Moscow. But even if Riyadh and Tehran do not take up Beijing’s mediation offer, that China made it suggests not only that Beijing does not think Moscow can play this role effectively, but also that Beijing is not particularly concerned about any sensitivity Moscow may have about China offering to play the role of mediator to which Russia aspires.

Beijing does not have the historical baggage that Moscow, with its long engagement and controversial legacy in the Middle East, has accumulated. This deep history can complicate Russia’s regional agenda. For example, deep-seated narratives about 19th century Russian imperialism have made it exceedingly difficult politically for the Iranian regime to allow Moscow to deploy air force bombers at Iran’s Hamadan base for use in the joint intervention in Syria. In August 2016, Iran reversed such permissions after only a week. Despite the clear strategic benefits to both sides, the idea was, as one expert aptly put it, “just too much for Iranian domestic politics to bear.” Russian media reports claim that the use of the base has quietly resumed, but this illustrates that not just Washington, but Moscow as well, inspires suspicions, and even hostility, among erstwhile allies and interlocutors in the Middle East.

While Russia is benefiting, at least for now, from positioning itself as an “alternative” to the United States on a range of issues and roles, sooner rather than later it will have to take full responsibility for its own policies and actions. Should Moscow make a concerted effort to “own” diplomacy on conflict resolution in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and other regional battlegrounds – especially where it is perceived to be more of a belligerent than a well-intentioned bystander – this could quickly extract more costs than benefits, especially if negotiations are unsuccessful and, worse, seen as part of a calculated and self-interested Russian strategy. China is in a far better position – lacking both the historical baggage and present-day direct engagement in Middle East conflicts that can undermine U.S. and Russian diplomatic initiatives – to convincingly lay claim to an “honest broker” title, should Beijing really want such a role.

Being able to talk with all sides in a conflict may be a necessary condition for being an effective mediator. But it is not a sufficient one. For a host of reasons, then, Moscow does not appear to be as suited to the role of Mideast mediator, in as many conflict situations, and as effectively, as the Kremlin would have us believe.

Mark N. Katz is a visiting scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.