Modest objectives of the Gulf-Russia dialogue

Moscow wants the six GCC capitals to recognize the key Russian role in the future of the Arab region

Raghida Dergham
Raghida Dergham
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The objectives of the strategic dialogue between Russia and the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are not complicated, but fulfilling them requires the Gulf states to take clear decisions on several issues. This week in Moscow, a new round of the strategic dialogue was held under Saudi’s rotating presidency, amid radical differences over Syria as both sides themselves admit.

However, the two are determined to have cordial relations, each for its own calculations, which could include motives such as Russian-American relations and Gulf-American relations. Moscow wants the six GCC capitals to recognize the key Russian role in the future of the Arab region and the Middle East in general, and is intent to let Arab leaders understand Russia is indispensable when it comes to finding solutions.

It has imposed this equation on the Syrian battlefield primarily, and through it alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran, filling the vacuum the US has chosen to produce by abandoning its traditional relations with the Gulf nations. Despite the Russian positions that are diametrically opposed to the Gulf positions on Syria and Iran, Gulf countries have accepted what the Russian leadership has imposed, agreeing to the principle of separating political differences from economic and strategic relations.

At the economic level, the equation is clear, and it is based on mutual interests. But strategically, this is where the dilemma lies, unless the definition of the term strategic relations has become devoid of its traditional components. Therefore, it is perhaps time for the GCC countries to explain what they have in mind and to elaborate their policies, to avoid being misunderstood and to allow for positive outcomes.

Realistically speaking, there is nothing on the horizon that suggests any convergence is taking place between Russian and Gulf positions on Syria. There is no hint of deals or accords. The most that we can speculatively say is that perhaps there is some kind of a moratorium agreed on public differences.

Russia is clear with regard to its strategic alliance with Iran in Syria, and is clear about clinging to Bashar al-Assad, regardless of its hints to the otherwise by claiming it is keen about the regime rather than the president. Russia is also determined to have a permanent foothold in Syria.

The Gulf countries are not opposed to Russia’s consolidation of influence in Syria. They are keen to see a separation between the regime and the man at the helm, but at least publicly, they are determined for Bashar al-Assad to step down. The key difference, therefore, is Bashar al-Assad not the long-term Russian strategy in Syria.

Moscow is offering the Gulf countries to be the intermediary who can keep its Iranian partner in check, provided that the Gulf countries agree to a joint security framework and share regional influence with the Islamic Republic

Raghida Dergham

Syria’s future

Gulf states recognize the central Russian political role in Syria’s future but they also understand that the Russian military role keeps Bashar al-Assad in power and fundamentally undermines the Syrian opposition backed by the Gulf.

The difference is not superficial after all. It is fundamental and it translates on the battlefield and in the military balance of power on the ground. Russia is a direct party to the war being fought on the other side by Gulf countries, through Syrian rebel groups, though in a scattered manner restricted by the US, given that supplying advanced US-made weapons to third parties needed to change the balance of power requires Washington’s approval.

However, this could also be a convenient excuse for some Gulf countries, which differ among themselves over which faction in the Syrian opposition are worth the risk. Indeed, there exists Chinese-made missiles that can hit Syrian – but not Russian – warplanes in the altitudes they operate at, and yet, those missiles have been withheld. This is while the Russian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis has been making major gains in favor of the Assad regime in Syria.

A high-level official Gulf source said the Gulf nations are not ready to abandon their condition for Assad to be removed from power, because his survival in power is absolutely unacceptable. They are not ready either to supply advanced weapons, fearing a response against Gulf countries by the UN Security Council, which bans arming militant groups that can turn the military balance of power on its head.

Faced with this reality, the Gulf countries in their dialogue with Russia are seeking to persuade Moscow to establish better relations with the Syrian opposition, which Russia is completely undermining, to stop trying to replace it with the Russian-sanctioned Syrian opposition, that is, the opposition that Bashar al-Assad has no qualms with.

The Gulf ambitions in the strategic dialogue with Russia are thus very modest. The remarks by the Gulf official are a message that the Syrian opposition must heed. In the most extreme case, it seems, what is coming is not a Russian pledge to stop striking the Syrian rebels, nor advanced weapons for the rebels even if Chinese missiles are released. It is a recipe for continued fighting as part of the equation of attrition, rather than prescription for strategic understandings to stop the bleeding in Syria.

The Russian-Gulf strategic dialogue has an Iranian dimension that goes beyond Tehran’s role in Syria. Moscow wants to be the sponsor of Gulf-Iranian relations, and has offered to mediate though this was not well received by the Saudis at some point. The Gulf positions on Iran are convergent in that they want Russia to put pressure on Tehran to rein in its regional ambitions. Moscow’s thinking is different from the Gulf assessment of Iranian objectives, especially since the Russian-Iranian partnership in Syria is strategic, not just tactical.

Moscow is offering the Gulf countries to be the intermediary who can keep its Iranian partner in check, provided that the Gulf countries agree to a joint security framework and to share regional influence with the Islamic Republic. But the GCC countries are categorically opposed to the idea, as this would legitimize Iran’s influence in major Arab countries like Iraq and Syria.

They do not trust Russian or American security proposals that call for a new security system in the Gulf and Middle East, which would give Iran a position of dictating its superiority in the security equation.

Russia wants to describe its proposal as a formula for sharing Saudi-Iranian influence in the Middle East, meaning the Arab region. By doing so, Russia converges with the US administration, which is also intent on forcing the Gulf countries to accept legitimizing Iran’s role in the Arab countries. Russia gives these efforts the title of “mediation” seeking “balance” in Russian-Gulf and Russian-Iranian relations.

Here too, there are differences over the notion of Gulf-Iranian relations in accordance to the Russian-American lexicon. It is not clear whether the Russian-Gulf strategic dialogue has made any progress except on issues like Yemen and Libya.

Yemeni arena

On the subject of Yemen, Russia remains cautions, playing its card very carefully. Moscow is seeking to enter the Yemeni arena surreptitiously through proposals for Russian-American partnership in managing the dossier. This has raised the suspicions of Gulf players, who point at Russian-American partnership in Syria as an example that must be avoided in Yemen. Still, Yemen remains a low priority for Russia.

Even Iraq doesn’t seem to be a Russian priority. There, Moscow has accepted that Iraq is Iran’s and America’s prerogative. What Moscow wants, according to an informed observer, is contracts to guarantee Russian interests in Iraq.

As for Palestine and Israel, Moscow appears to be keen on having an excellent relationship with Israel and on maintaining what it considers balance in its Palestinian-Israeli relations. Al-Hayat’s correspondent in Moscow Raed Jaber wrote this week that the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as defense minister in Israel is “good news” for Russia.

He quoted Russian press reports as describing the man as a “close friend of President Vladimir Putin”, saying the Kremlin looks at the political landscape from the standpoint of the existing coordination between Moscow and Tel Aviv in Syria and the improvement of relations with Tehran.

Concerning Palestine, Moscow appears to be keen to support the “burial” of the French peace initiative rejected by Israel, because Moscow wants to push an alternative initiative it has yet to reveal. However, Russia’s priority it seems is not Palestine but its interests with Israel, especially in terms of Israeli-Turkish relations that the appointment of Lieberman will further strain.

In practice, then, there are no strong foundations for strategic Russian-Gulf relations. Still, dialogue is a good start. However, clarity is needed with regard to the objectives of the dialogue, whether it is a Russian-Gulf or Gulf-American dialogue. The Arab region is not in a state that allows it to engage in open-ended strategic dialogues. They are drowning in bloodletting and tragedy that could get even worse.

Therefore, the Gulf countries should explain to the people of the Gulf and the Arab region their thinking and their policies vis-à-vis those conflict zones that are deeply affected by the Gulf’s regional and international policies.

This article was first published in Al-Hayat on May. 27, 2016 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, and New York Bureau Chief for the London-based Al Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the United Nations. Dergham is Founder and Executive Chairman of Beirut Institute, an indigenous, independent, inter-generational think tank for the Arab region with a global reach. An authority on strategic international relations, Dergham is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an Honorary Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP- the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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