By Zurab Batiashvili, Research Fellow at Rondeli Foundation
On February 13-14, 2019 an international conference dedicated to the issue of Iran, entitled Peace and Security in the Middle East, was held in Warsaw on the initiative of the White House where 60 countries supporting Washington were represented – Israel, Saudi Arabia and its allied Sunni nations. The conference was attended by European countries as well (Georgia being one of them).
Those opposed to the conference soon called the event an “anti-Iranian” action and boycotted its work. They planned their response measure on the same date – an already traditional trilateral summit between Russia, Iran and Turkey on February 14 in Sochi in terms of the Astana Process and parallel to the conference in Warsaw. The parties in Sochi discussed the ways for resolving the problems connected to Syria.
Despite the fact that these two blocks are opposed to one another, they also have some similarities – both have the ambition that they can resolve the very difficult and painful problem of the Middle East without reaching an agreement with the opposing side.
The Warsaw Event
During his speech at the Warsaw conference, the Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence, and the Secretary of State of the United States, Mike Pompeo, accused Iran of creating instability and a conflict situation in the region, calling on the European allies to leave the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran. Mike Pompeo went even further, saying that “it is impossible to achieve peace and security in the Middle East without confronting Iran.”
The states participating in the Warsaw conference attempted to consolidate in order to reduce tensions between themselves. It is the United States’ wish to bring Israel and the Sunni Arab states (especially their leader, Saudi Arabia) closer together which, at this stage, have no diplomatic relations due to the conflict in Palestine. However, nothing unites countries like a common enemy. The US has also prepared an Israel-Palestine peace plan with this exact purpose; however, as the Senior Advisor of the President of the United States in Middle Eastern Affairs, Jared Kushner, stated, the details of the plan will only become public in April after the Parliamentary elections are held in Israel.
Washington’s attempts to involve powerful European states and the European Union in the anti-Iran coalition has been futile so far – the majority of these countries sent only low level officials to Warsaw. Furthermore, they are trying to deepen their trade relations with Iran which causes Washington’s discontent. The Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence, openly stated in Warsaw that “sadly, some of our leading European partners have not been nearly as cooperative. In fact, they have led the effort to create mechanisms to break up our sanctions. It is an ill-advised step that will only strengthen Iran, weaken the EU and create still more distance between Europe and the United States.” In addition, Pence underlined that sanctions against Iran will become even more severe unless it refrains from actions causing destabilization.
Naturally, the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, was very active at the conference, not excluding the possibility of war with Iran.
It is interesting that no documents were adopted at the conference.
Representatives from Russia, China, Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine did not attend the Warsaw conference.
Also naturally, the most opposed side to the conference was Tehran. Iranian officials not only condemned this gathering but also accused Israel and the United States of organizing a terrorist act near the Pakistani border. This terrorist act coincided with the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution and took the lives of 27 Iranian soldiers (from the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps).
At the Russia-Iran-Turkey trilateral summit, the parties, which are militarily represented in Syria as well, formulated a joint statement which says that they do not wish for a vacuum to be created after Washington’s withdrawal of US forces from Syrian territories east of the Euphrates River. However, apart from this issue, their interests are rather divergent: while Moscow and Tehran wish for the territory east of the Euphrates River to be transferred under the control of Damascus, Ankara’s primary goal is to create a “security zone” there in order to keep the pro-Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units), which it considers to be the continuation of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) terrorist organization, away from its borders. For Ankara, this is an existential threat. However, the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, once again failed to persuade the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, and the President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, to agree to his conditions. It must be pointed out that prior to this, the Turkish-US negotiations regarding the possible creation of a “security zone” east of the Euphrates River also yielded no results due to the principled differences between the parties’ positions.
The second important topic discussed by the parties was the issue of Syria’s Idlib Province which is the last territory reinforced by mainly opposition-minded jihadists. Despite the fact that Russia, Iran and the Assad regime, unless something extraordinary happens, do not plan to conduct a decisive attack on Idlib, the strengthening of jihadist groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda in Idlib (HTS – Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) increases the likelihood of such an operation in the future.
It is Moscow’s wish to neutralize the fighters (that have the potential to threaten both Aleppo as well as the Russian military bases in Syria) based in a strategically located Idlib Province in a way that the Chechen fighters present in Idlib do not then end up on Russian territories. In its turn, Turkey is doing its best to avoid a Russia-Iran-Assad attack on Idlib Province which could cause new streams of refugees. Ankara, which already shelters five million refugees on its territory, does not want an influx of additional Syrians (3.5 million people living in Idlib) in Turkey as they could easily be followed by jihadist fighters disguised in civilian clothing (and they number in the tens of thousands) which will also create challenges to the security of not only Turkey but also of European and Turkey’s neighboring countries (including Georgia).
The statement made by Putin in Sochi about possible future US actions was also noteworthy. According to him, nothing indicates the withdrawal of Americans on the ground. At the same time, he expressed his doubts about how President Trump will manage to keep his word regarding the withdrawal of US troops due to domestic problems.
At the end of the meeting it was decided that the next trilateral summit regarding the issues of Syria will be held in April of this year in Turkey.
- The Sochi summit and the Warsaw conference failed to deliver a breakthrough on the issues of the Middle East (which presumably nobody expected to happen). The parties were mainly content with stating their positions and planning future actions.
- It became clear that the positions of the parties are quite rigid. Confrontational rhetoric from the leaders is growing which increases the risk of escalation of an already difficult situation.
- The parties do not trust one another which is why there is no visible perspective of a dialogue between them.
- There are serious difficulties even among the countries in the same blocks.
- The attempts of both blocks to resolve the problems accumulated in the Middle East independent from one another are less productive as the interests of the other side, as well as those of the local population, are taken into account to a lesser extent or not at all.
- Unless something unanticipated happens, Russia, Iran and Turkey will probably wait for the US withdrawal from Syria planned for March-April as well as for local elections in Turkey after which they will attempt to make a compromise decision.
- The US will probably wait for the Parliamentary elections in Israel after which it will attempt to approximate Israel and Arab countries through a new peace plan.
- At the next stage, Washington will probably attempt to increase pressure on Tehran and extend the anti-Iran coalition by including European countries in it.
- In terms of the situation in the Middle East, there are two factors that are important for Georgia:
- It is necessary to pay attention to Russia-Iran-Turkey cooperation. If they manage to successfully cooperate in the Middle Eastern region, it is not excluded for them to extend such an approach towards the Caucasus as well which could have direct influence on Georgia.
- It is necessary for Tbilisi to continue its cooperation with our strategic partner, the United States, in such a way for it to not become too irritating for Iran. In addition, it will also be necessary to maintain communication channels with Tehran.