Challenges in the Middle East create space for cooperation between Russia and Europe

While the disagreement over Ukraine remains a long-term irritant in Russian relations with Europe, it is still too early to speak about the beginning of the new Cold War. In other regions of the world, both sides face challenges that may demand joint cooperation. Currently, there are three main issues that require collaboration in the Middle East: the spread of jihadists in Syria and Iraq, the civil war in Syria and Iran’s nuclear programme.

Islamic State

The issue of the jihadist threat is a concern for both Russia and Europe. For the latter, the increasing number of European citizens travelling to the Middle East to join the fighting, most notably from Britain, has been a huge worry. For Russia, the spillover of the Syrian and Iraqi conflict to the Caucasus and Central Asia has become highly possible.

The overall situation has quite a number of practical implications for a potential dialogue between Russia and the EU. First of all, Moscow and the European countries can establish an active exchange of information regarding the situation in Iraq and Syria that would help people fighting against the jihadists on the ground.

Secondly, the spread of jihadists and the rise of ISIS compel the European politicians to reconsider the current political map of the Middle East. Under the new conditions, old enemies of the West, such as the Syrian government and Iran, could become EU and US partners in the struggle against the radicals. Yet, if in the case of Iran the discussion of options for cooperation against ISIS between Brussels and Tehran is possible, direct contact with the Syrian government does not yet seem feasible. As a result, Moscow could play the role of the mediator coordinating the anti-Jihadists efforts of Damascus and Europe.

Thirdly, Russian assistance could also be useful in terms of arms supplies to the Iraqi and Kurdish governments. As opposed to the EU members and the US, the weapon exports in Russia do not require multiple approvals of different officials. Consequently, the Russian authorities react to the demands of the anti-ISIS forces quicker than their colleagues in the West. Moscow is already supplying the Iraqi government with fighter jets and strike helicopters. There is an opportunity for the EU to coordinate their supplies with Russia.

Syria

Despite ample disagreements over Syria, Russian attitude towards the Assad government creates certain opportunities for dialogue between Moscow and the EU. First of all, Russian support for Assad is not as blind as the majority of European experts think. Russian contacts with some groupings within Syrian opposition demonstrate that Moscow can be flexible and ready for a dialogue. Russian officials have stated on numerous occasions that they do not mind the transition of power from Assad to other political groupings as long as this process is conducted in a legitimate way.

Under these circumstances, there is some room for a Russia-EU dialogue. However, Europe will need to take Russian interests into account. For example, official guarantees to preserve some Russian presence in Syria if President Assad is gone will probably be a serious incentive for Moscow to cooperate with the EU.

Iran’s nuclear programme

Russia, just like its Western partners, is not interested in the acquisition of a nuclear or any other type of weapon of mass destruction (WMD) by any Middle Eastern state, including Iran. Concerns that the growing instability in the region may lead to the acquiring of these weapons by terrorists and extremists compelled Moscow to exercise necessary efforts in Syria. Russia was the country to persuade President Bashar Assad to agree to eliminate his arsenal of chemical weapons.

Russia’s position on the Iranian issue is simple: a military operation against Iran (or even tougher unilateral sanctions) is not the right path to take. Diplomatic negotiations must remain the main channel for resolving this issue. This approach creates a solid base for cooperation between Moscow and Brussels. The Kremlin will never approve any military action against Tehran. Nevertheless, Russia will remain persistent in its support for the negotiation process between the Islamic Republic and the international negotiators. Under these conditions, there are good reasons for the EU to continue its dialogue with Moscow and coordinate their efforts within the P5+1 group.

A stable Middle East is in the interest of both Russia and Europe. This common ground should be utilised to build concrete joint efforts to tackle pressing issues in the region. Dual cooperation could lead to a thaw in severed relations over Ukraine and facilitate the process of rebuilding trust between Russia and the West.

By Alexander Clackson

Alexander Clackson is the founder of Global Political Insight

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Categories: Europe, Middle East

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