by Kristijan Fidanovski
On February 26, 2018, Dr. Vitaly Naumkin, Russia’s leading expert on the Middle East addressed SFS students at an event hosted by the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies. Dr. Naumkin shared valuable insights from his involvement with the United Nations and the Russian Foreign Ministry on the Syrian peace talks and discussed the objectives of Russia’s wider Middle East policy.
After a brief introduction by Dr. Andrew Kutchins, CERES Senior Fellow, Dr. Naumkin began his lecture with an overview of the history of Russia’s relationship with Middle Eastern countries. He stressed that the current Russian government had substantially improved relations with most of the countries in the region after a decade of limited cooperation following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Reflecting upon events in the Middle East in the past two decades, Dr. Naumkin highlighted the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the NATO operation in Libya in 2011 that resulted in the assassination of Moamer Gaddafi as harmful to both regional stability and to US-Russian cooperation in the region.
On Syria, Naumkin believes that Damascus would have ended up in the hands of ISIS had Russia not gone in to provide military support to the Syrian government. He also argued that the Assad regime, regardless of its human rights record, deserves admiration for its military strength as it has managed to maintain the integrity of the Syrian state despite tremendous obstacles. “In Damascus life is still normal, everything is working, despite the sanctions,” said Dr. Naumkin.
Responding to a question on future steps in Syria, Dr. Naumkin stressed the importance of abiding by the framework outlined in UN Resolution 2254, which was passed in December 2015, and its three main goals: changing the political process in Syria, instituting constitutional reform, and holding elections. Finally, Dr. Naumkin argued that labeling Assad as a war criminal was counterproductive to the Syrian peace process, and that the international community should focus on creating conditions for democratic elections, where the Syrian people would then be the best judge of Assad’s record.