Ahead of the G8 summit in France on May 26-27, Russia has stepped up diplomatic activity in the Arab world in an effort to recapture the initiative it lost to the West in the recent turmoil in the region.
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier this week met in Moscow with a delegation of the Libyan opposition led by former Libyan Foreign Minister Abdurraham Muhamed Shalgham. The meeting took place less than a week after representatives of the Libyan government and the special UN Secretary General's envoy for Libya Abdul-Ilah al-Khatib visited Moscow.
Mr. Lavrov said Moscow's main goal in engaging the two warring sides was “to promote an immediate end to the bloodshed, to the military activities.”
“It is important at this stage to help define the participants in future talks… that would represent the interests of all political forces [and] all tribes in Libya,” Mr. Lavrov said adding that a concrete list should be the result of an “all-Libya consensus.” Russia abstained in the U.N. Security Council vote in March on international military intervention in Libya, but has since corrected its position strongly criticising the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) campaign as a flagrant breach of the U.N. mandate for imposing a no-fly zone in the North African country.
Even though the Moscow round of talks failed to produce agreement, Russia has won the support of both sides in the conflict for its mediation efforts. While Shalgham said rebels would not negotiate with the Qadhafi regime, he welcomed dialogue between the Transitional National Council (TNC) and Moscow. Russia agreed to accept the TNC as “a legitimate partner” in Libya even as it has retained formal ties with the Qadhafi government.
“We want it very much to be in touch with Russia, because it is a very important country, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council,” the rebel envoy said after talks with Mr. Lavrov. He also spoke out against the deployment of NATO ground forces in Libya. Russia's credentials as a mediator received a further boost on Sunday when Moscow hosted a meeting of rival Palestinian leaders from Fatah and Hamas. Mr. Lavrov announced after the talks that the Palestinians had agreed to an implementation mechanism for their reconciliation agreement signed in Cairo in early May. In contrast to the West, Russia has never branded Hamas as a terrorist group and invited its leaders to Moscow after Hamas won elections in Gaza. Moscow praised reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, even as U.S. President Barack Obama called it an “enormous obstacle” to peace in the Middle East.
Russia's peace offensive on Libya comes at a time when the conflict there reached a stalemate and NATO looks increasingly likely to deploy ground forces to defeat the Qadhafi army. The Russian initiative clearly irked the West. This became evident when the TNC delegation visit to Moscow was postponed last week “for technical reasons.”
Even if the Russian mediation fails, Moscow will still score propaganda points by showing that there was a chance to resolve the crisis peacefully. Russia is bound to gain support in the Arab world which increasingly resents the West's military interference in Libya. Dialogue with the Libyan opposition will also help Russia safeguard its substantial economic and arms trade interests in Libya in the post-Qadhafi era.
Russian peace efforts in Libya have another important goal — to prevent a replay of the Libyan scenario in Syria, a key Russian ally in the Arab world, which hosts Russia's only naval base outside the former Soviet Union.
Syria is being tipped as the next target of the West's “humanitarian intervention.” The U.S. and the European Union clamped down sanctions against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, but Russia and China blocked a Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian government's crackdown on opposition protests. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said he would oppose any U.N. resolution that would open the way for interference in Syria's internal affairs, remembering that the West “trampled upon Resolutions 1970 and 1973.”
Two days before the G8 summit, where Libya and Syria would discussed, Mr. Medvedev reiterated Russia's support for the Syrian leader, telling him in a telephone call that Moscow stood up its “principled position regarding the events in Syria and around it” and hoped “the reforms launched by Bashar al-Assad will be implemented by the Syrian leadership dynamically and in a broad dialogue with the Syrian public.”
Moscow's new activism in the Middle East and North Africa is putting to the test the Russian-U.S. “reset” and creates an intriguing setting for the one-to-one meeting between the Russian and U.S. Presidents on the sidelines of the G8 summit.