New Middle East Quartet Established in Damascus

Other News Materials 5 September 2008 14:41 (UTC +04:00)

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti commentator Maria Appakova) - It was not enough for Syria to break out of international isolation. Now it is claiming the laurels of peacemaker and the status of a key player in the Greater Middle East.

With remarkably little fanfare, a new union of mediators on the Middle East has been established in Damascus. Among other things, they may be able to build a bridge between Moscow and Washington.

Nicolas Sarkozy visited Damascus on September 3 and 4. This was the first visit of a French president in six years. In the last few years, high-ranking Western leaders have avoided visiting Syria. The Russian president has not been there either, despite the relatively warm relations between the two countries.

Moreover, Damascus timed Sarkozy's visit to coincide with a quadripartite summit to discuss the situation in the Middle East and other regional issues, including the recent war in the Caucasus.

The Syrian and French leaders were joined by the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The guest list was well chosen. France currently holds the EU Presidency, Syria chairs the Arab League, Turkey is an active go-between in the Syrian-Israeli talks, while Qatar played the main role in negotiating a domestic agreement in Lebanon, and in involving Damascus in the talks on the latter's problems.

Initially, the summit was supposed to focus on the Syrian-Israeli talks, all the more so since its next round, which Damascus has described in advance as "decisive," is scheduled to take place very shortly. But because of Israel's domestic problems, Syrian President Bashar Assad merely had to state that the sides had come close to "the elaboration of an agreement on the principles of new peace settlement." He added that it is necessary to wait and see who will become Israel's new prime minister, and whether he will continue the current line on talks with Damascus. In turn, the participants in the summit promised unreserved support to Assad on this issue.

The summit's participants also discussed the bottlenecks of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, the complications preventing Lebanon from reaching national accord, the Iranian nuclear issue, and the situation in Iraq and Sudan. But the very fact that the summit took place at all is more important than its agenda. It did not produce any final documents, but its conduct is more telling than any papers. It signaled the birth of a new Middle East Quartet. Let's recall that the term of "Middle East Quartet" is usually used to describe the European Union (EU), the United Nations, Russia, and the United States' efforts to mediate in the Middle East. In 2003, they drafted a roadmap for Palestinian-Israeli settlement, and tried to act as key go-betweens in the Arab-Israeli confrontation as a whole.

In the 1990s, the United States was an active mediator not only between Palestinians and Israelis, but also between Syrians and Israelis. Russia for its part has in the past few years insisted on comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement and lobbied for a larger role for Syria. But all these efforts proved in vain. Negotiations ground to a halt on all fronts, while the roadmap became obsolete, although it still remains the basic document for the peace process.

At the same time, the Syrian-Israeli talks have been suddenly revived with mediation from Turkey. Now France is ready to act as a go-between. Washington is certainly still a major player, and Damascus admits that any agreement may fall through without its explicit approval. However, the United States is no longer the driving force in the negotiating process. The same applies to other regional issues, be it in Lebanon, Palestine, Sudan, Iran, and even Iraq. Paradoxical it may seem, but in the Middle East Washington plays the decisive role without deciding anything.

What are the new driving forces in the Greater Middle East? Strictly speaking, they are not new. The majority of these have been key players at different times, but the United States ousted them all. Now the historic tradition seems set to prevail again. Turkey and France are assuming the main role. Syria has a different weight and power of influence, but recent events in the region bear out that not a single issue there can be resolved without it; especially as it acts as one with Iran.

These three countries were joined by Qatar, which succeeded in brokering a settlement in Lebanon. Now it is claiming peacemaking laurels in Sudan's Darfur, and possibly in some other problems. When journalists asked Sarkozy about talks with Hamas on the fate of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, he readdressed the question to the Emir of Qatar. The latter said he was not in the know, but Sarkozy's words suggested that Qatar might act as a mediator on this question as well.

The new quartet is an interesting symbiosis of forces and interests. It is building an axis from the Persian Gulf to the Black Sea via the Mediterranean, and uniting all regional problems, from Iran to the Caucasus, including the Middle East knot, into an integral whole. This union is balanced out by the West and the East, and by Washington's allies and opponents.

Importantly, this quartet may become the main equilibrant between the United States and Russia. This task has become very important recently. It is no accident that during the discussion of regional issues Bashar Assad mentioned events in South Ossetia and praised Sarkozy for his mediation. He said the countries in the Middle East are not interested in a new Cold War, and do not want the region to be turned into the arena of confrontation it was in the middle of the 20th century. "Flames from one part of the world spread to other regions, and the fire becomes twice as strong," Assad said.

While declaring common goals in the Middle East, Moscow and Washington have wasted too much time on tactical maneuvers and mutual suspicion on other issues, although their cooperation could have facilitated a settlement in the region, and the resolution of the crisis around Iran. Now new mediation bridges are being built in the Middle East, including between Russia and the United States.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of Trend.