Commentary | A Tale of Two Summits: Washington and Moscow Advance Opposing Visions for the Middle East
New Delhi — On the 14th of February, two conferences took place on the Middle East. One, featuring representatives from over 60 countries, took place in Warsaw under the leadership of the United States, with generous support from Poland. The other one was a trilateral summit at Sochi, featuring the leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey, and was organized by Russia. These two summits provide a perfect example of the two approaches that major powers currently employ towards the region, as well as the sharp contrasts in the leadership and effectiveness of Russia and America in the context of regional affairs.
With over 60 nations present, ‘The Ministerial To Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East’ as the Warsaw event was termed, was a way for the Trump Administration to shore up support to build a new international consensus on a variety of topics, ranging from Iran to Palestine. Unfortunately, the international response was not as enthusiastic as Trump expected. Although the United States delegation included both Secretary Pompeo and Vice President Pence, and Poland’s PM Mateusz Morawiecki lent his support to the event, the only other head of state at the event was Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, whose presence was more a publicity stunt heading into a contentious election.
The fact that major American allies, such as Germany, Canada, the EU, France, and Italy , declined to send senior cabinet leaders spells poorly for the U.S.’ ambitions; the event was never taken as a serious forum for discussion. Furthermore, the fact that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, an ally that the Trump Administration has been able to work with well, chose to embark on a tour of Asia instead of attending the event is yet further evidence that the event lacked the punch that a Washington-led, 60-nation gathering is expected to carry.
The Crown Prince’s absence is also noteworthy in and of itself, given the event’s focus on Iran and the stated objective of establishing common ground amongst the various governments upon a sanctions and containment regime against Tehran. This focus does explain the reluctance of a number of European nations to send senior cabinet officials. Following Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the European Union embarked on a way to facilitate trade with Iran to bypass re-imposed American sanctions on Iran. The Trump administration hoped to use the event as a forum to strong-arm European allies into dropping plans for the mechanism, a point that was re-iterated at the event by Mike Pence. The Vice President called it “an effort to break American sanctions against Iran’s murderous revolutionary regime” that could “only strengthen Iran, weaken the EU, and create still more distance between Europe and the US”.
While a half-hearted attempt was made to broaden the topic of discussion to address the Palestinian issue, Washington and Warsaw failed to attract more senior foreign representation at the event. If anything, their attempts to cow other nations into adopting Washington’s position, by broadening the discussion, only led to greater pushback from other invitees. Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil declined the opportunity to attend the event; various Palestinian representatives called the event a “conspiracy aimed at eliminating the Palestinian cause.” The lack of international consultation on the agenda, and subsequent rejection of Washington’s platform, is symptomatic of Trump’s individualistic style of leadership which hampers his ability to encourage consensus on key issues. The dwindling enthusiasm to use force to stem conflict in the region, as shown by Trump’s snap decision to withdraw from Syria (the details of which are still unknown and which have led to a variety of conflicting statements), narrows the leverage that the U.S. wields with local allies that often end up at odds with one another.
Washington’s failure to elicit support from its allies gathered in Warsaw for its convoluted and contrarian agenda to advance its interests laid in stark contrast to the gathering in Sochi. Just a day after a meeting with Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus on the 13th of February, Putin hosted the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani, for a discussion on the Syrian conflict, in which Iran and Turkey back opposing factions.
The summit centered around building up on an earlier agreement in 2018 to establish a de-conflict zone in Idlib, a city of 2.5 million people that has emerged as the most significant remaining battleground in the conflict. In contrast to the U.S.’ unilateral objective of convincing its allies to support a new sanctions regime on Iran, the Sochi conference’s decision to concentrate on one crucial region of the conflict, without explicit pressure from Russia to ensure a particular outcome, left greater room for compromise. The conference concluded with a joint statement and press conference that reiterated a unified decision to preserve a single state solution for Syria and a statement that hinted at a further discussion over the Kurdish question. The event also included plans for a series of follow-up talks between major Syrian players in Astana and, in an overt message to Washington, established that Turkey and Russia would collaborate on a mechanism to circumvent sanctions on Iran.
With these three major regional players working in tandem to establish a timeline for a plan of action, as well as improvements in trilateral relations in light of collaboration to combat American sanctions, the Sochi summit arguably led to greater progress than in Warsaw. The Trump administration’s individualistic approach to strong-arm its allies into pursuing a narrow path with no goals failed to match the impact of Moscow’s smaller, high-level conference centered around collective deliberation and collaboration to seek solutions. Such varying impacts show how Iran, Russia, and Turkey will be the countries that will influence the future of the Levant to a greater extent than any Western nation that is reluctant to become truly involved in the politics that have risen in this region. However, the only point of agreement visible by a vast majority of both of the conferences was a reluctance to confront Iran, as long as Iran continued to adhere to the JCPOA. This leaves open the question about whether the three currently collaborative nations at Sochi will be able to work cohesively to synthesize a detailed political plan for the future of Syria, as opposed to gradually managing the decline of the conflict. One thing is certain: Moscow, Tehran, and Ankara are slowly making ground while Washington remains mired amongst its own allies.
All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.