After a long absence, Russia is now demanding a seat for itself at the top table of Middle East affairs. It seems determined to have its say on the key issues of the day: the crisis in Syria; the threat of war against Iran; Israel’s expansionist ambitions; and the rise of political Islam across the Arab world.

These were among the topics vigorously debated at a conference at Sochi on Russia’s Black Sea coast, held on February 17-18 in the grandiose marble halls of a 22-hectare resort — with its own elevator to the beach below — once the playground of Soviet leaders.

Attended by over 60 participants from a score of countries, the conference was organised by Russia’s Valdai Discussion Club on the theme of ‘Transformation in the Arab World and Russia’s Interests’.

Among the Russians defending these interests were Mikhail Bogdanov, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vitaly Naumkin, Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, Alexei Vasiliev, Director of the Institute of African and Arab Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Andrey Baklanov, head of the International Affairs Department of Russia’s Federal Assembly.

Seen from Moscow, the Middle East lies on its very doorstep. With 20 million Muslims in the Northern Caucasus, Russia feels that its domestic stability is linked to developments in the Arab world, especially to the rise of Islamist parties. If these parties turn out to be extreme, they risk inflaming Muslims in Russia itself and in Central Asia.

Professor Vitaly Naumkin — the man who sits at the summit of oriental studies in Russia — declared that “I believe democracy will come to the Arab world by the Islamists rather than by western intervention.” He admitted, however, that we would have to wait to see whether Islamist regimes in Arab countries proved to be democratic or not.

Moscow’s first reaction to the Arab revolutions has tended to be wary, no doubt because it suffered the assaults of the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan, and so forth. Yet it is now fully aware of the need to build relations with the new forces in the Arab world.

Events in the Middle East may even impinge on Russia’s presidential elections, giving a boost to Vladimir Putin’s ambitions. Ever since his historic visit to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf in 2007 — the first ever by a Russian leader — Putin has claimed to know how to handle Middle East affairs.

The situation in Syria is a subject of great preoccupation in Moscow. Bogdanov was very firm, issuing what seemed like a warning to the western powers: “Russia cannot tolerate open intervention on one side of the conflict,” he thundered. It was wrong to force Bashar Al Assad, ‘the President of a sovereign state’ to step down. Russia was seeking to institute a dialogue without preconditions. It was continuing its contacts with the opposition. But, in the meantime, he cautioned, the opposition had to dissociate itself from extremists.

In thinking about Syria, the Russians are clearly much influenced by what happened in Libya. The western powers, Bogdanov charged, had made many mistakes in the violent overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. “There is a need,” he insisted, “to investigate the civilian casualties caused by Nato air strikes.” Professor Naumkin explained: “Russia feels that it was cheated by its international partners. The no-fly zone mandate in Libya was transformed into direct military intervention. This should not be repeated in Syria.” Arming the opposition would only serve to increase the killing. There was now the threat of civil war. Reforms had to be given a chance. The majority of the Syrian population did not want Al Assad to stand down. External armed forces should not intervene.

Although Naumkin did not say so, there were rumours at the conference that Russia had advised Al Assad on the drafting of the new Syrian Constitution, which strips the Baath Party of its monopoly as ‘leader of State and society.’ The constitution is due to be put to a referendum on February 26, followed by multi-party elections.

As was to be expected, several Arab delegates at the conference were critical of Russia’s role in protecting Al Assad, in particular its veto on February 4 at the UN Security Council of the resolution calling on him to step down. Professor Naumkin put up a vigorous defence. “We are seeking a new strategy of partnership between Russia and the Arab world,” he declared. “We are determined to take up the challenge against those who do not respect our interests.”

He stressed that Russia’s interests in the Middle East were not mercantile. It had no special relations with anyone (by this he seemed to mean the Al Assad family); it had no proxies or puppets in the region.

Russia was a young democracy. It listened to public opinion. It was defending its vision of international relations based on respect for the sovereignty of states and a rejection of foreign armed intervention.

Of all the Arabs present, it was the Palestinians who, not surprisingly, were most eager for Russian support in their unequal struggle with Israel. Now that Russia was returning to the international arena as a major player, they called for it to put its full weight in favour of the peace process and of Mahmoud Abbas, ‘the last moderate Palestinian leader.’ America’s monopoly of the peace process had merely provided a cover for Israeli expansion.

Speaker after speaker deplored the ineffective peace-making of the Quartet (the US, European Union, Russia and UN). Indeed, an Israeli speaker reminded the conference that the discovery of large gas reserves off the Israeli coast meant that Israel — soon to be ‘a major partner in the energy market’ once gas started to flow next year — would be less motivated to talk peace. The world would be confronted; he seemed to be saying, by a ‘Greater Israel with gas!’

Some Palestinians called for the toothless Quartet to be dismantled altogether and replaced by enhanced UN involvement. Some Israelis conceded that their country had made strategic errors in expanding West Bank colonies and laying siege to Gaza.

Nevertheless, the Israel public had turned against the peace process, while the goal of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to rule out the possibility of a two-state solution. This prompted Ambassador Andrey Baklanov to argue for the need to re-launch a multilateral Middle East peace process to replace the failed bilateral talks.

Indeed, perhaps the clearest message of the conference was the appeal for a greater role for the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in establishing a new multilateral mechanism for regional security. To halt the killing in Syria or to ward off a US-Israeli war against Iran, would Russia sponsor a mediation process in conjunction with its Brics partners? Would it seek to revive the moribund Arab-Israeli peace process by sponsoring an international conference in Moscow? These questions remained unanswered.

Russia’s ambition to play a greater role in international affairs is clear. But can it deliver?

Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.

–Gulf News