Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Just say no

On the eve of the Arab summit in Khartoum Russia is once again emerging as a key international player. Just as Moscow is about to assume the G8 presidency, Chinese-Russian relations are thawing while American policy in the region is suffering a clear setback. The most obvious example of this is Iraq, on the verge of civil war at a time when Washington repeatedly insists that it is on the cusp of becoming a model for regional democratic transformation. There is Palestine, where Ehud Olmert, the acting prime minister, has all but killed off the roadmap; Sudan, and the stumbling attempts to remedy the disaster that is Darfur, and the confrontation with Tehran over its nuclear file.

Such repeated US failures are extraordinary given that Washington, for more than a decade now, has been in a position to dominate the Middle East, to put forward political and diplomatic initiatives and then follow through on them. Washington, in short, has been the region's most influential decision-maker.

If the US has single-handedly dragged the region into a state of strife, where might a resurgent Russian role lead it?

Russian influence is likely to be felt in three areas. First there is the Palestinian arena. The electoral victory of Hamas was welcomed in Moscow despite Israeli threats and US accusations that Hamas is a terrorist group. That Moscow is willing to defy the American line reflects its new-found independence of post-Cold War equations that seemed to be working out in Washington's favour. The Hamas visit to Moscow was its first appearance on a non-Arab stage. As such, it gave international affirmation to a legitimacy gained through the ballot box.

Over Iran, while Moscow might have disagreed with Tehran's decision to enrich uranium on its own territory its position is a tacit acknowledgement that Iran has a right to procure enriched uranium. Moscow has suggested that such enrichment take place with the participation of Iranian scientists, and for Iran's benefit, on Russian territory.

There is, too, the Lebanese-Syrian file. Russia has urged Syria to respect United Nations resolutions, whether they relate to the investigation into the assassination of Rafik Al-Hariri or the implementation of the remaining clauses of Resolution 1559. That the Moscow visit of the Syrian foreign minister coincided with a visit by Terje Roed-Larsen, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's representative, is unlikely to have been an accident.

In all three areas it would appear that Moscow is once again flexing its muscles, saying no to Washington's dictates for almost the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact.

The Europeans and China have both attempted to play a political role in the region characterised by a degree of independence from the US. Such attempts, though, have been halting. There are two reasons for this. The first is the lack of active cooperation between Arab nations and the Europeans and China. Arab states remain convinced that only Washington is capable of promoting a political settlement with Israel, a conviction that has led them to place all their eggs in a single basket.

Israel has repeatedly aborted European, and for that matter all other non-US led international moves, to intervene. So will the US now allow Russia to assume a regional role? Is it in any position to thwart Moscow's regional ambitions? Where do the Europeans and China stand? Is it possible to build political alliances away from Washington, or for European-Russian, or even Chinese-Russian, coordination to impact on America's strategic dominance in the Middle East?

Attempting to answer such questions will be high on the agenda of the Arab summit in Khartoum as it attempts to forge an Arab strategy, or at least a joint plan of action, to fill the void left by the failure of the last summit in Tunisia.

The dangers that threaten to engulf the region, from Iraq to Darfur, from Lebanon to the Western Desert, require the articulation of several no's -- no to Arab division, no to further polarisation, and no to conceding usurped rights.

To compare the situation now to that which prevailed at the time of the 1967 Khartoum summit highlights the extent of the transformation that has taken place in the Arab nation.

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