America cannot afford to withdraw completely from the Middle East, Vladimir Yakunin said on the sidelines of the 12th annual international conference of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). A supporter of dialogue between civilizations, the Russian business leader and philanthropist was speaking about challenges facing the Middle East and the world.
Yakunin is the chairman of the Dialogue of Civilizations (DOC) Research Institute supervisory board (the think tank was created in 2016) and a former president of Russian Railways. The concept of a “dialogue of civilizations” dates back to the period after 9/11, when the American academic Samuel Huntington wrote The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, and Iranian leader Mohammad Khatami discussed such dialogue at the United Nations. But Yakunin came to INSS to speak more specifically about changes in the Middle East.
“It is known that some terrorist organizations were founded with the unspoken consent of states whose leaders hoped to solve certain internal issues with the help of terrorists,” he asserts. However, experience has shown that terrorist groups have their own interests, and their threats have morphed beyond states to impact the world. One of the main places that became a hotbed for extremists, particularly ISIS-led terrorists, was Syria over nearly the last nine years of civil war.
Yakunin says that as the US is planning to leave Syria, the country is now impacted by the Astana and Geneva peace processes in which Russia, Turkey and Iran have been meeting. “Today some territory of Syria is under the control of the American forces. Tomorrow they are leaving, and the people there, they are left on their own,” he says. Managing the US withdrawal means collaboration between other actors, such as the US, European powers, Turkey, Syria, Israel and Iran.
Yakunin suggests that now, as Syria appears to be in the process of reasserting its sovereignty, it may be time for Russia and the US to talk. “You know, everyone has some kind of influence on some parties. Russia has some relations with Iran and Turkey, and the US has relations with Turkey, and that can facilitate the process of the peaceful settlement and transformation of the political process in Syria.”
He argues that the political “vector” of Syria might be changed if the Americans would engage in discussions about Syria, rather than remaining aloof in the Astana and Geneva meetings. “Without talking, it is not possible to understand what the other side is seeking. We stopped talking… and that is not the right feature in the view of this crisis in this region and in other regions.”
IN LOOKING at Israel and the region, Yakunin says he has observed Israel’s growing relations with some conservative regimes in the Arab world, and warns against some Israeli voices who stress forging an alliance with “Sunni” states. This means that Israel is “not talking about dealing with states, but somehow replacing states with a very serious religious issue. And in my mind, it could be a mistake, and we should take care about that.” Looking at the region through a sectarian and religious Sunni-Shia divide, he emphasizes, is not helpful in terms of dialogue and combating terrorism.
Does that mean we are approaching a post-sectarian age? Yakunin agrees that this may be road the region is heading toward. It won’t go back in time. Terrorist actors, he asserts, have lost attractiveness.
Yakunin is adamant that his discussion at INSS does not represent Russia, but rather his personal opinion derived from work at the DOC. He argues that Russia stood by the government of Syria due to its own interests, and also because Russia was aware that 5,000 of its citizens had traveled to Syria as extremists. “It gave a clear picture that if the terrorists’ organizations could become more and more attractive for these elements… Russia needed to cope with this risk. And that is why [Russian President Vladimir] Putin expressed the viewpoint that Russia was fighting international terrorism and preventing this hijra from returning to Russian soil.” Hijra was the term ISIS supporters used to describe their Islamic journey to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
For Israel, the main concern today is Iran. “As far as Iranians are concerned, I can refer to the opinion of some Russian figures in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for example. And they were saying they trust that Iran will not undertake any aggressive step against Israel first. Again, it is only a kind of assessment,” he says. “To learn more and know whether it is correct or not, there should be channels and talks and platforms. Without that it is not possible to create any practical solutions. And this is a role of the DOC.”
Asked if he is suggesting DOC might be a place for track-two style discussions with Iran, he emphasizes, “We are not mediators.” However, in his view, “Today has great deal of importance. We should attribute to collaboration between think tanks, business people [and] cultural people. So that is to say that it is not states that have dialogues, but representatives of civil society and public opinion leaders. They should be involved in this process.”
Yakunin is more concerned about larger processes at work in the world. Environmental problems are huge, he notes. And humankind faces, among others, challenges from artificial intelligence and the effects of chemicals on human life. “All this needs a global cooperation of the people. It is much wider than the responsibilities of the states, because this is a responsibility of a global scale, and a responsibility before mankind.”