By Elisabeth Hellenbroich
At this year’s Valdai Club discussion, which assembled 169 members from different countries around the globe, Russian President Putin gave a speech which was interpreted by many western commentators as a harsh, but clear message that Russia is back on “world stage” and that there will not be any reasonable settlement of the Mideast, particularly in respect to the war in Syria and also in respect to solving the refugee crisis in Europe, unless Russia is included in the peace negotiations as an “equal partner”.
In his two hour and a half speech and the discussion which followed it (aside President Putin the panel included former Iranian foreign minister and current chairman of the Iranian Parliament Ali Larijani, former President of the Czech Republic Vaclav Klaus and former arms reduction negotiator under Ronald Reagan, Former US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Jack Matlock), Putin stated that so far the US policy in the Mideast, in particular in Syria, but also in Ukraine, is a “bluff”, a calculated geopolitical game whose aim is to humiliate Russia and push it on the defensive. In the context of the military offensive which Russia had started end of September, following an official request from the Syrian government authorities, President Putin signaled clearly that Russia does not have the intent to stay in Syria forever, but that Russia also does not accept the Scenario of helping the West to overthrow Syrian President al Assad. Like he did during his speech at the UN General Assembly, he called for an international alliance to fight the “Islamic State” (IS), including both USA and Russia and those allies who wish to join the fight. He is the first state leader, as was noted by western commentators, who presented a “road map” for the peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis. According to Putin “Syria could become a model for partnership in the name of common interests, resolving problems that affect everyone, and developing an effective risk management system. “
War or peace
A very alarming title was chosen for this year’s 12th annual Valdai Club conference: “Societies between War and Peace: Overcoming the Logic of Conflict in tomorrow’s World.” The main questions on the mind of the conference participants were: What will be the future of Syria and the Mideast as a whole? What are the chances to form an international alliance to fight the IS? What will be the future of the Ukraine two years after the bloody Maidan events and the after the Minsk agreements ? What role does the EU and the US play in a potential future settlement of the different crisis spots around the globe? It became obvious during the discussions that the solution of the Syrian crisis in line with the Ukraine crisis is the “lynchpin”, the central focus, on which the global strategic balance is based.
Europe, i.e. the EU, is right now confronted with the biggest refuges crisis since the end of World War II. Given its internal fights and disagreements over how to settle this crisis, the EU could detonate from within and sink into political and social chaos. This will be especially the case, as long as the conflict in Syria is not solved, which Putin correctly identified as one of the “root causes” for the fleeing of millions of refugees. At the beginning of his speech the President made reference to the novel “War and Peace” written by the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy at the end of the 19th century. He underlined the significance of the title “War and peace” for this year’s Valdai conference. Tolstoy, as Putin remarked, had emphasized that war contradicts reason and human nature, while in his opinion peace was good for the people. Peace has always been ideal for humanity. State figures, philosophers and lawyers have always come up with ideas how to create a lasting peace, Putin emphasized.
He illustrated the situation by referencing to the history of the last 300 years, which also had been subject during one of the Valdai panels on diplomacy, by stating that “peace, as a state of world politics, has never been stable and did not come of itself. Periods of peace in both Europe and world history were always been based on securing and maintaining the existing balance of forces. This happened in the 17th century in the times of the so called Peace of Westphalia, which put an end to the thirty Year’s war. Then in the 19th century, in the time of the Vienna Congress; and again 70 years ago in Yalta, when the victors over Nazism made the decision to set up the United Nations Organization and lay down the principle of relations between states.”
The end of the cold war finished the “ideological opposition” but the basis for arguments and geopolitical conflicts remained, Putin stated. He spoke about the attempts by the US “to
promote a model of unilateral domination” that has led to an imbalance in the system of international law and global regulation, which means there is a threat, and political, economic or military competition may get out of control. At the same time he warned that many “regional conflicts in border areas” where interests of major states meet, could lead to a down fall of the system of non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction which in turn would result in a new spiral of the arms race.
A key example given by Putin was the “US unilateral withdrawal from the ABM treaty” and its efforts to further build up an anti-missile defense system, even after Iran had demonstrated to the world that there never have been weapons of mass destruction in Iran. Despite the fact that there is no objective reason for the US to build an anti-missile-defense system, the opposite is happening, Putin stated. He identified this as an attempt by the American partners, “to again mislead us and the whole world. To put it plainly they were lying. It was not about the hypothetical threat, which never existed. It was about an attempt to destroy the strategic balance, to change the balance of forces in their favor not only to dominate, but to have the opportunity to dictate their will to all: to their geopolitical competition and, I believe, to their allies as well.”
Fighting IS terrorism
The key challenge today according to Putin is how in the near future we are going to fight common threats like terrorism in compliance with international law.
Given the fact that the terrorist organization “Islamic State” (IS) has taken huge territories under control, Putin emphasized: “It is time the entire international community realized what we are dealing with – it is, in fact an enemy of civilization and world culture that is bringing with it an ideology of hatred and barbarity, trampling upon morals and world religious values, including those of Islam, thereby compromising it.”
Putin’s remarks during the panel discussion were complemented by former Iranian foreign Minister Ali Larijani, who also had said that one should not be trapped in making an artificial separation between so called “moderate and immoderate terrorists”. There may be some differences, but the splinters are not fighting each other for ideological reasons, Putin emphasized, but for money, for feeding grounds –“while their essence and method remain the same: terror, murder, turning people into a timid, frightened, obedient mass.” The reality on the ground is that the “terrorist infrastructure” has been growing and “weapons provided to so-called moderate opposition ended up in the hands of the terrorist organizations.”
The Russian president wondered why the US and their allies in the struggle against IS did not really yield any tangible results. He laid the blame on the US and some of its allies for engaging in “double crossing”: “You declare war on terrorists and simultaneously try to use some of them to arrange the figures on the Middle East board in your own interests, as you may think.” It would be impossible to combat terrorism in general if some terrorist are used as a battering ram to overthrow regimes that are not in one’s liking.”
Putin’s speech must be seen as a signal and message to the international community, above all to the US. And the key aspect of it was that he presented a “road map” that could settle the Syrian crisis and his invitation to the US and its allies to become part of it. The key elements of the plan being:
- Free Syria and Iraq’s territories form terrorists and not let them move their activities into other regions. To do that, all forces must join including Iraqi, Syrian regular armies, Kurdish militia, various opposition groups that have made contribution in fighting terrorisms and coordinate actions of countries within and outside the region against terrorism. At the same time joint anti – terrorist action may certainly be based on international law.
- A victory militarily will not resolve all the problems but it will create condition for beginning of “a political process with participation of all healthy patriotic forces of the Syrian society. “It’s the Syrians who must decide their fate with exclusively civil, respectful assistance from the international community, and not under external pressure through ultimatums, blackmail or threats.” Syria can, as he put it, become a model for partnership in the name of common interests, resolving problems that affect everyone, and developing an effective risk management system.“
- He demands the involvement in the process of political settlement of the Muslim clergy, leaders of Islam and heads so Muslim nations “as being crucial”. “We count on their consolidated position and assistance, as well as their moral authority. It is very important to protect people, especially youth, against the destructive effects of the ideology of the terrorist, who are trying to use them as cannon fodder, nothing more. We need to distinguish clearly between genuine Islam, whose values are peace, family, good deeds, helping others, respecting traditions, and the lies and hatred that the militants sow under the guise of Islam.”
- “We currently need to develop a road map for the region’s economic and social development, to restore basic infrastructure, housing, hospitals and schools. Only this kind of on-site creative work after eliminating terrorism and reaching a political settlement can stop the enormous flow of refugees to European nations and return those who left to their homelands.”
Clearly Syria would need massive financial, economic and humanitarian assistance in order to heal the wounds of war. This should involve donor nations and international financial institutions. He in this context hailed positively the fact that an American- Russian document had been approved on safety guidelines for the two countries’ military aircraft flying over Syria, as step in the right direction. “We are close to starting an exchange of information with our western colleagues on militants’ positions and movements…And what is more important is to treat one another as allies in a common fight, to be honest and open. Only then we can guarantee victory over the terrorists.”