4 December 2021

Saturday, 09:57



Middle East is taking a hit again... Is everything okay in Baghdad?



The rapid development of events in the Near and Middle East, with the strengthening of some groups of influence and the weakening positions of others, forces the key players of regional politics to search for the new rules of the game. We should therefore assess the recent initiative of the Iraqi government to organise and hold a regional conference in Baghdad on 28 August through the prism of these circumstances. The purpose of summit is to reduce tensions in the Middle East and to underline Iraq's new role as a mediator in solving complex regional problems.

“Iraq, which for many years has been the centre of wars and conflicts, is now hosting leaders and representatives of the region to reaffirm its support for its sovereignty and prosperity,” President Barham Salih said at the summit. That perfectly shows the true goals of the organisers of the event.

Among the main topics of discussion were the regional water crisis, the war in Yemen, and the economic and political crisis that brought Lebanon to collapse. However, according to experts, the holding of event was significant in and of itself, as it took place amid the contradictions shaking this complex region.


What is the common denominator?

Heads of state attending the Baghdad summit included Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, King Abdullah II of Jordan, Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and French President Emmanuel Macron. The meeting was also attended by the heads of the governments of Kuwait and the UAE, foreign ministers of Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Although the organisers said they did not expect any diplomatic breakthroughs, there was an attempt to shape a new regional agenda following the withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the rise of the Taliban to power in Kabul.

It is no secret that there have always been contradictions between these regional states, which have recently become even more acute. The obvious desire of some ‘advanced’ states to more clearly pinpoint their areas of interest outside their national borders, including in the military-political sphere, leads to a clash and conflict of interests. A number of states are increasing their military presence in various parts of the Middle East, demonstrating their determination to defend their position by all possible means. Former partners and allies become rivals in these conditions. On the other hand, former ardent and implacable opponents are beginning to show interest in dialogue in order to strengthen their geopolitical positions and regroup forces to counter their former allies.

This is also true for the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia and Iran, on the other. Under the new conditions, Baghdad is increasingly offering its services as a mediator and an effective negotiating platform, trying to play on the field of the warring parties. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kazimi openly made it clear at the summit that negotiations between Riyadh and Tehran on normalisation of relations are underway. Moreover, this statement was made many months after the information about contacts between the Iranian and Saudi representatives in Baghdad. Thus, Iraq decided to remind that this topic is still open and is being promoted with its active participation.


Baghdad's activity in the interests of Paris

Given that the US is loosening its grip on regional affairs, Baghdad invites other countries to be active and find a formula for cooperation that suits everyone.

At the same time, the July visit of Iraqi Prime Minister al-Kazimi to the US gave rise to speculations that one of his goals was to obtain permission from the White House to implement the above idea. This goes well with the ongoing reformatting of the current US policy in the Middle East. Washington seeks to optimise its presence in the region by creating a balance of power and interests of its participants, which could be regulated, not controlled by actions from Washington. The US needs partners who can act as agents of such a policy.

Emmanuel Macron’s participation in the event clearly indicates that France is trying to play a more active role in the region. During a press conference, he said: “Regardless of the American decision, we will maintain our presence in Iraq to fight terrorism.” He made a claim to actively participate in defining the rules of the game after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the utmost minimisation of Washington's military presence in Iraq.

Macron was the only Western leader at the summit. France, which has a military contingent in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, the UAE, and Djibouti is trying to ensure a tangible military-political presence in the Middle East and thus influence the course of processes in this region. Although other participants in the summit are quite sceptic of Paris’s claims, the regional countries are not against the participation of a high-ranking representative of the Western political community in their meetings. Obviously, this is a plus to the status of the event.

Just before the summit, a very significant meeting took place between the UAE Vice-President Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum and the Emir of Qatar Al-Thani, whom the former called his ‘brother and friend’. These contacts continued in Baghdad, indicating an improvement in relations between the recent opponents.


Reincarnation of ISIS?

Some observers believe that the regional summit in Baghdad was mainly organised to discuss Iran.

“Regional and world leaders usually meet to discuss regional issues, in which case Iran and its relations with other countries are likely to be in the spotlight.” This was said by the former adviser to the King of Jordan, Abu Odeh. In his opinion, the foreign policy of the US President Joe Biden “made Arab leaders worry: if you cannot rely on the Americans, you start looking for regional solutions.”

Experts note that any meetings of regional leaders, especially amid the growing contradictions, inspire hope. In particular, public figures hope that these summits can lead to economic stability, especially with the implementation of large-scale energy and transport projects. An improved economic situation in the region can also have a direct impact on improving the quality of life of the most vulnerable segments of the population, especially those who bear the main burden of the raging civil wars in the Middle East. Any such summit is, primarily, an excellent opportunity to expand the space for dialogue to put an end to regional conflicts in the Middle East.

The Arab media often claimed that despite an international scope of participants of the summit, the key players were Jordanians, Egyptians and Iraqis. It is the leaders of these three countries, who have worked hard to complete regional projects in energy, oil pipelines and tax-free industrial zones meant to create favourable political conditions.

There is a popular belief that the solution of security threats in the region, including the threats from the still existing terrorist organisation Islamic State (IS), largely depends on a stable, sovereign and prosperous Iraq.

Ten years after the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US-led NATO coalition forces that toppled President Saddam Hussein, in June 2014 ISIS announced the creation of a caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

In December 2017, Iraq, supported by external forces, declared IS to be defeated on its territory. Meanwhile, the organisation still retains dormant cells and continues to report bloody attacks. One of the deadliest was the explosion in July, which killed more than 30 people on the eve of Eid al-Fitr. IS still has access to tens of millions of dollars and will likely continue to rebuild its network across Iraq and Syria. Its main goal is to ensure that its branches remain active until it can sufficiently rebuild its core in Syria and Lebanon.

In July, US President Joe Biden announced that the US military operations in Iraq will end this year, but the Americans will continue to train and advise Iraqi troops in the fight against IS. The anti-terrorist coalition argue that the Iraqi security personnel can prevent another IS offensive. They may not be perfect, but they are trained enough for American troops to leave the country. Iraq will not allow a repeat of another 2014, foreign analysts say.

We will see the developments in the future. But for now it is important that the actors of these processes gain time and achieve a certain predictability amid new challenges put forward by non-systemic forces. Obviously, rivalry among the regional states only weakens them, and makes potential rivals only stronger.