In this Q&A with Russia Direct, Vitaly Naumkin discusses the major points covered in his RD Brief on Russian foreign policy in the Middle East, including his analysis of the current situation in Syria.

Video by Pavel Gazdyuk

As tension continues to escalate in the Middle East, and especially in Syria, Russia Direct asked Vitaly Naumkin, Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, to share his thoughts on what motivates Russian foreign policy in the Middle East and to give his view on the current standoff over Syria.

Russia Direct: Can you share an overview of some of the major points you cover in the RD Brief on Russian foreign policy in the Middle East?      

Vitaly Naumkin: The [RD Brief] report can be summarized in several points. One point is about Russian interests in the Middle East, of which there are plenty. Despite the fact that the Middle East is not the main priority in Russian foreign policy, still it is important not only as the Middle East per se, but it’s also important for the Russian relationship with global partners, and with global powers, including the United States.

We have a responsibility together with Washington, for instance, for the settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Both Russia and the United States are members of the international quartet as mediators. So we are interested in working closely in trying to find a solution to this long-lasting, protracted conflict. Without solving this conflict, nothing can be done in order to pacify this region, which is undergoing very high turbulence.

The second point is about Russia’s assessment of the Middle East. We are supportive of the changes that are going on. At the same time, we have our special stance on these changes and the transformation of the Middle East. Sometimes the new forces coming to power are discredited by their own behavior, as [it] happened in Egypt.

Yet, in general, we are trying to build relationships even with these new forces like Islamist organizations. We can mention in this regard that Russia does not consider organizations like Hamas as terrorist organizations, which is not true for Western countries.

So, the next point of my report is about the U.S.-Russia relationship. Despite big differences in the Russian and American positions towards many problems, mainly events in Syria, we share common interests in stability and peace.

We see that the wave of anti-Americanism is growing in the Middle East region. We were not happy by that. We’ll feel much better if the Americans felt comfortable – without threatening the Russian position, without trying to pressure Russia on certain issues, or putting the Middle East under their hegemony. At the same time, constructive cooperation with the United States is happening in our joint battle against terrorism, the Iranian nuclear problem, and some other issues as well.

Russia Direct: What are the main obstacles against improvement of U.S.-Russia relations in the region?

V.N.: There are some general obstacles like our differences on the state of the international order and our attitude towards international interventions in general, as well as the respect towards the sovereignty of the states in the region and all over the world. Toppling regimes by whoever wants it [and] whoever considers these regimes not serving their interests is not a proper policy.

We were very much influenced by what happened in Libya. And the lessons of Libya have been learned by Russia, because what we see in Libya is full chaos after the direct military intervention of the Western powers in Libya. Qaddafi’s regime was eliminated, was toppled. What we see instead is a destroyed country, the spread of weapons all over North Africa. Actually it helped organizations affiliated with Al Qaida and some other extremist and terrorist groups in the region mobilize people and become stronger.

Russia is very sensitive towards helping those radicals in Syria who are trying to topple the regime of [President Bashar] Assad. Despite the fact that we share the same interest in putting an end to atrocities, to the bloodshed in Syria, still there is a civil war going on there.

One of our U.S. partners once said in a comment: In a civil war, there are no bad guys and good guys; there are only winners and losers. We cannot provide help to one side in order to win in this war. We would like to influence the local actors in order to enter international dialogue. I think the main view of Russia is to provide help for reconciliation in Syria, but not for military intervention.

There is still some hope in Russia for constructive cooperation between Russia and the U.S., especially in the preparations for the Geneva-2 conference. It’s still possible. The window is very narrow, very small. But still there is some hope.

RD: How can we overcome the obstacles for improved U.S.-Russia cooperation in the Middle East region?

V.N.: It’s very difficult. Mr. Obama is under severe pressure from different parts of public opinion. We know. We understand the situation in the United States. It’s the American style of democracy. It’s a clear competition between the executive branch of the American establishment and Congress. That’s why, I think, Obama declared his position from the very beginning as the leader who can put an end to two wars in the Middle East (in Afghanistan and Iraq) that the United States heads. Unfortunately, he is coming back to military action against Syria where we still don’t have clear evidence, ‘a smoking gun’, in the view of Russia, that [Syria] can be blamed for.

The Middle East: A new great gamble? Photo: Getty Images / Fotobank

Though I believe that if we agree on the main points that are pressuring both sides in Syria, including Assad, Russia might be more active in pressuring Assad to accept realities and to try to accept the reality existing in international relations in favor of this reconciliation and trying to find solution for this internal crisis.   

Syria is a divided and fragmented society. So, in my view, there can be no military victory. That’s why Russia is in favor of these negotiations: peace processes in Syria, not a military strike.

RD: How can you assess Obama’s decision to get an approval from the Congress to conduct a military strike against Syria?

V.N.: My personal view is that Obama might be a bit skeptical. He clearly hesitates. He clearly understands that he has to make a decision, he need a face-saving strategy.  If he said that there is a ‘red line’ use of chemical weapons that cannot be crossed, then if it’s crossed, the U.S. will use force against the regime. His intelligence [claims] that Assad has to be blamed for that, though it reminds us the old story of Iraq, when Saddam Hussein was also considered responsible for having nuclear weapons and then it turned out that he had none. On one hand, Obama is obliged to do something; on the other hand, I think he understands that these military strikes cannot achieve the main goals of any sort of solution for Syria.

The chemical weapons cannot be destroyed by these limited strikes; the regime cannot be toppled by any military strikes; and the main result will be a more aggressive civil war, more cruelties, more refuges, and more bloodshed.

I think Obama might understand it but we’ll see what will come out of this discussion in Congress. I think Obama also saw what happened in the UK. The fact that Cameron went to the Parliament to ask for approval for his participation in this military intervention, it makes the American president [do this] as well. He’s decided that he also will go to Congress to ask reviews of the legislature in order to approve his decision.

RD: How likely is it that the Congress will approve the military strike against Syria?

It’s very hard to guess. We hear a lot of views from both sides. I would say it’s clear that the majority of Americans are against this military strike. But I am afraid in the American Congress there will be enough support of this military strike.

RD: So, do you think the strike will happen?

V.N.: It might happen. But I am not sure.

RD: If it happened, who would join the U.S. in it?

V.N.:  As we know, Turkey and France are willing to join the U.S. And probably some local players will join. At least they can participate financially – someone like Qatar or Saudi Arabia.

RD: Who would be the next target after Syria? Could it be Iran?

V.N.:  There is some general thinking about the possibility of other victims of such a policy but in my view it’s absolutely impossible.

RD: Who firstly should be interested in reading your report?

V.N.:  I hope that it can be a very wide audience of those who are interested in what is happening in the Middle East and in the impact of recent turbulent developments in the Russia-U.S. relationship – developments that are important for the world, for global policy. That’s why I think everyone who cannot ignore what’s happening there might be interested in the report.

RD Brief is free and available to subscribers only.