Thursday, 13 May 2010

Russia steps centre stage

Russia has been pressing for some time to play a more central role in current Middle East politics. Russia is, of course, a founder member of the "Quartet" – the foursome comprising the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia – that was set up in Madrid in 2002 to mediate the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In 2003, the Quartet proposed the Roadmap, a detailed timetable for peace, intended to lead to a two-state solution with a democratic Palestinian state co-existing alongside Israel. On 19 November 2003, the UN Security Council officially endorsed the Roadmap.

Russia has played its part in recent interventions by the Quartet into the developing situation – in particular in the meeting of 19 March held in Moscow, which roundly condemned the by now notorious announcement of a major building project in a Jerusalem suburb. At the same time the meeting fully endorsed the projected start of the proximity talks, which had been brokered by the US special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell.

It was Israel's President, Shimon Peres, back in January, who approached Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to say that Russian involvement was critical for the peace process. Peres stressed that Russia's status as a non-aligned player put the country in a unique position to build confidence on both sides.

Reports from Jerusalem later indicated that Medvedev had pledged that Russia would do everything it could to contribute to the process – including hosting a Middle East peace conference. Incidentally, other contenders for this prize since the start of 2010 have been France's President Sarkozy, and also US President Obama, who is reported to have used the threat to "go it alone" with a summit conference run by the Quartet if the current peace talks become bogged down – thus, in effect, outflanking them.

And now President Medvedev is on a tour of the Middle East, starting with a visit to Damascus on Monday, in the first official visit by a Russian or Soviet leader to Syria. Here, it is reported – though with how much accuracy it is difficult to judge – the Russian president pushed President Bashar Assad hard for a rapprochement between Syria and Israel. However, what he may have given with one hand, Medvedev hastily withdrew with the other by jointly affirming with Assad, Iran's right to develop a peaceful nuclear energy programme, which, world powers generally acknowledge, is really a drive for an atomic weapons capability.

Medvedev also told Assad that he hoped to increase Russian cooperation with Syria in the oil and gas sectors, and also – and perhaps significantly – in the field of atomic energy. However, beyond a vague reference, he gave no further details on what nuclear cooperation had been discussed. Syria armed with a nuclear capability would pose just as severe a threat to stability in the world in general, and that of the Middle East in particular, as Iran – and would merit as severe a reaction.

While in Damascus, Medvedev took the opportunity to meet Hamas's political chief, Khaled Mashaal – who “chanced” to be in the vicinity at the time. According to the Novosti news agency, the Russian President called on Mashaal to free the captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. Shalit has been in Palestinian captivity since he was abducted in a 2006 cross-border raid from the Gaza Strip. Israel and Hamas have been engaged in ongoing indirect negotiations over a prisoner swap deal which would see Shalit released in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, but the exchange has yet to be finalized.

Medvedev's next port of call was Turkey, Russia's second largest trading partner, where he met with President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Following their meeting, a joint statement was issued to the effect that, in their view, Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement, should not be excluded from the Middle East peace process. There was an immediate reaction from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "Terrorists are terrorists,” ran the statement, “and Israel sees no difference whatsoever between Hamas terrorists acting against Israel and Chechen terrorists acting against Russia. There is no difference between Khaled Mashaal and Shamil Basayev [the slain Chechen separatist and guerrilla leader]. Israel has always sided with Russia in the fight against Chechen terror, so we expect similar backing when it comes to Hamas terror against Israel."

This Russian initiative is difficult to read. An apparently unrelated news item in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz on Tuesday may provide a clue. Military intelligence, it was reported, in an analysis of what is going on in Syria, indicated that President Bashar Assad was prepared to examine the possibility of a peace agreement with Israel. We have heard this particular refrain before, but the visit by the Russian President is surely intended to increase Russia's influence in the Middle East. It may just also be a pre-emptive strike, as it were, directed towards Russian involvement in the possible future peace talks between Syria and Israel that Medvedev has apparently called for. Previous proximity talks between Syria and Israel were hosted by Turkey. Perhaps Russia seeks to take over.

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