Sochi and Warsaw: Two summits with competing agendas

Published 15.02.2019 21:26
Updated 16.02.2019 11:52

Two meetings took place earlier this week in Warsaw and Sochi that were crucial for the future of the Middle East. The former was a by-product of the emerging anti-Iran bloc led by the United States, Israel and the Gulf. The European Union's presence at the event was limited, whereas Turkey, Lebanon, Palestine and Qatar did not attend. The essence of the Warsaw summit was to unite Arabs and Israel against Iran and in return, force the Palestinian people to stomach the so-called Deal of the Century. Moreover, it aimed to get European governments to throw their weight behind the new plan for the Middle East.

That push is unlikely to yield results.

Meanwhile in Sochi, representatives of Turkey, Russia and Iran gathered for the fourth meeting of the Astana process. On the agenda were the establishment of a constitutional committee, the creation of a safe zone, the return of refugees and humanitarian assistance. Slowly but surely, the three leaders made progress under the Astana process umbrella. Hence, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's emphasis on the concrete, positive results that the Astana process has produced.

To be clear, that three countries with conflicting interests in Syria have been working together for two years is a major accomplishment. Obviously, some issues are still on the table: Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, grows stronger in Idlib. There are disagreements over the proposed members of the constitutional committee. Russia is committed to keeping Bashar Assad in power. Finally, the future of the PKK's Syrian branch, the People's Protection Units (YPG), remains unclear. Yet, the Astana process is absolutely crucial for success in Geneva.

The most recent developments in the region make it necessary for the trilateral cooperation in Astana to continue. In the wake of journalist Jamal Khashoggi's slaying, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were forced to keep a low profile. The lack of international interest in the Warsaw summit possibly attests to that fact. Going forward, the United States is unlikely to talk the European Union into joining the anti-Iran bloc. As a matter of fact, the Europeans just added Saudi Arabia to their terror finance risk list. Despite the Trump administration's continued support, the U.S. Congress keeps bringing up Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's role in the Khashoggi murder. U.S. President Donald Trump won't get to relax until that problem goes away.

The Khashoggi murder sent the American-Israeli alliance in the Gulf into a tailspin. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's crown prince is unlikely to impose the so-called deal of the century on Palestine now. Nor does the shifting balance of power in Syria, Yemen and Iraq serve Gulf interests. In the end, the Gulf will be forced to play defense to stay in the game.

The Warsaw and Sochi summits did not just take place on the same day. They also embody two opposite approaches to the future of the Middle East. Turkey is crucial for both sides. In light of the country's unwillingness to jump on the anti-Iran bandwagon, Israel and the Gulf designated it as a threat. From the Gulf perspective, Turkey is now a regional power that must be contained. As such, the UAE has stepped up its smear campaign against Turkey and Erdoğan through lobbyists and think tanks in Washington. This is no surprise, as counter-revolutionary forces in the Middle East have long viewed Turkish democracy and Erdoğan's popularity as a threat.

Here's the takeaway: The Warsaw summit was part of a stillborn project with no real connection to the situation on the ground. Sochi, by contrast, represented an effort to foster international cooperation to end bloodshed.

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