From Russia with love? For now, 'it's complicated'
For an outsider, Moscow’s foreign policy seems intensely confusing to say the least
I write this from my hotel room overseeing the Russian Foreign Ministry’s iconic main building, a gigantic Stalinist-style skyscraper that was built as one of Moscow’s famous “Seven Sisters” between 1947 and 1953. Having witnessed the rise and fall of the Soviet empire, the building has recently re-emerged as a global power broker, particularly when it comes to the Middle East.
However, for an outsider, Moscow’s foreign policy seems intensely confusing to say the least. For instance, Russia remains the only power in the world (aside from Iran) that backs Syria’s dictatorship, a brutal regime that justifies its actions by claiming it is a victim of its anti-Israeli, anti-American position.
Yet this Russian support did not prevent Moscow from giving a warm welcome recently to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was visiting to mark the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries. This comes just weeks after announcing that Israel does not intend to ever return the Golan Heights - which it seized in 1967 - to Syria.
Another oxymoron, in which Russia may be similar to many Middle Eastern countries, is the awkward love / hate relationship with the United States. I must admit that upon visiting Moscow for the first time, the sight of the golden arches of McDonalds and other popular US brands almost everywhere was a real shocker.
It is not only Russia’s history of communism that makes these sights awkward. It is the current, intense local media coverage of bilateral relations, which makes one feel like the two nations are still at war. Asked about Moscow’s peculiar foreign policy, some local journalists and political analysts are full of praise, adding that it is pragmatism at its very best and ensures Russian interests are always served.
However, one expert candidly said these “Cold War tactics” ensured that people rally behind the flag and do not pay attention to the worsening economy since the collapse of the ruble in 2014.
The dispute over Syria
A major battleground of this new Cold War is Syria, where Moscow and Washington - along with most Gulf states - back opposing sides. Ironically, despite Russia’s military involvement, the average citizens you meet here are not able to locate Damascus on a map, let alone distinguish between regime loyalists, Al-Nusra and ISIS.
However, not everyone here is as detached. Almost a year ago, Russia’s Orthodox Church controversially described Moscow’s involvement in Syria as a “holy war,” though it later claimed its position was distorted by the media.
Experts I spoke to say Russia’s backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a matter of principle, citing Moscow’s concern for global stability and a lack of desire to see the Libyan debacle (for which they blame US involvement) being repeated in Syria.
If this is the case, one could safely deduce that Moscow would have no issue with Assad’s removal if it is done in a way that preserves Syria, or what is left of it. At least this is what should be understood from the recent comments of the Foreign Ministry’s official spokesperson Maria Zakharova. In March, she told the local Sputnik News agency that Russia backs a legitimate authority in Syria, “not Assad personally.”
This was perceived as a positive sign by many in the Syrian opposition and among their Gulf backers. However, there seems to be conflicting views and more than one say in Moscow when it comes to this issue. Some advisors may feel this would be too much of a compromise, and a victory to the US-backed side. As such, more senior Russian officials have made it clear that it they won't force Assad to leave, particularly if he is reelected by his people (or what remains of them).
Gulf states oppose any solution that does not guarantee the removal of the Iran-backed Assad, particularly following their massive financial, military and - most importantly - personal investment in this matter since 2011.
Yet things are changing, and there is a new, dynamic government in Saudi Arabia that is eager to move things forward. While Riyadh continues to maintain its position that Assad should be removed either by diplomatic or military means, we have seen unprecedented determination not to allow differences with Moscow on this matter to affect overall relations.
Close cooperation between Riyadh and Moscow cannot but be helpful, particularly when it comes to regional and oil-market stability. Most recently, Russia has proposed to mediate between the Saudis and Iranians.
Close cooperation between Riyadh and Moscow cannot but be helpful, particularly when it comes to regional and oil-market stabilityFaisal J. Abbas
Though neither Tehran nor Riyadh has jumped on the offer, the mere fact that Moscow made such a proposal is interesting. For its part, Saudi Arabia has repeatedly maintained that it wants good relations with Iran, but that it must stop meddling in its neighbors’ internal affairs.
Russia also seems ready to play a bigger role in Israeli-Palestinian talks. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reportedly brought up the Arab Peace Initiative during Netanyahu’s recent visit. However, without reconciliation between Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah, Israel will always have an excuse to stay away from the negotiating table.
I leave Moscow with a much better grasp of its positions. However, given that I was there to participate in a media forum, I cannot but say that signing bilateral media agreements with the likes of the discredited Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) will not help clarify Russia’s positions in the Middle East.
Regardless of whether it can convince the Arab street of its stance, Moscow would benefit much more from a stronger presence on mainstream and credible Arabic media outlets. This cannot be achieved by partnering with a state-owned news agency that has, in the midst of a civil war, reported that tourism is on the rise in Syria. The only thing on the rise in the country is terrorism; it is only by closer cooperation with the Gulf that this can be stopped.
Faisal J. Abbas is the Editor-in-Chief of Al Arabiya English, he is a renowned blogger and an award-winning journalist. Faisal covered the Middle East extensively working for Future Television of Lebanon and both Al-Hayat and Asharq Al-Awsat pan-Arab dailies. He blogs for The Huffington Post since 2008, and is a recipient of many media awards and a member of the British Society of Authors, National Union of Journalists, the John Adams Society as well as an associate member of the Cambridge Union Society. He can be reached on @FaisalJAbbas on Twitter.