Now that the Middle East conference in Warsaw has ended, words such as “disaster,” “disappointment” and “inconsequential” seem to be popular as part of the post-mortem. But the conference was a necessary step forward in a messy geopolitical environment.
It was different from past conferences or efforts, as the current geopolitical landscape is substantially different. There is considerable upheaval augmented by information warfare that complicates the strategic environment for all parties.
Moscow is preoccupied with larger geostrategic issues in northern Syria and North Africa. Russia and other countries are busy fixing Syria, and thus should be seen as part of a separate track that needs to be settled so the next step can occur in Syria’s transition from civil war to reconstruction. Despite all the underlying tensions between Moscow and Tehran in Syria, growing Russian-Turkish disagreements are coming to the fore.
Competition in geopolitical crises complicated the environment surrounding the conference. The fact that Russia, Turkey and Iran held their trilateral Astana-track meeting in Sochi concerning Syria weighs more heavily at the moment. The meeting was attended by the presidents of Russia, Turkey and Iran, with more immediate tasks at hand. It featured strong Russian pressure on Turkey and Iran, especially regarding the landscape ahead of the US withdrawal from Syria.
Thus the Warsaw conference must be seen in the context of shifting regional negotiations and actions. It hosted leaders and senior representatives from more than 60 countries, in a series of meetings dedicated to highlighting the drivers of terrorism, weapons proliferation and the development of ballistic missile programs in the Middle East, as well as combatting cyber threats to energy infrastructure and disrupting illicit financial networks.
Even Qatar’s foreign minister attended. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed security issues with Gulf ministers, especially the threat posed by Iran, and the best ways to combat extremism and the states that support it.
From the Gulf, the conference is a joint Arab achievement to uproot and dismantle extremist ideologies and cells that have gained the most strategically in the last decade. From this viewpoint, the ideas of collaboration are meant to set the tone as the White House’s peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is announced. The conference is important because it may be the start of a “Warsaw Process” regarding Middle East security.
Importantly, just prior to the conference, US, British, Saudi and Emirati officials met to discuss the next steps in Yemen, especially regarding implementation of the Stockholm Agreement between the Houthis and the internationally recognized government.
Europe’s efforts to create a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) to conduct transactions outside the US dollar while sticking to the tenets of the Iran nuclear deal are noble. But the weight of US sanctions, Europe’s own internal problems, and the impact of Brexit on the EU are all pressure points on the ability to keep the SPV active over time.
It is important to recognize that the genesis of the current campaign against Iran originates from discussions between Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE over the years about Tehran being a toxic threat to the Middle East. This threat perception is shared by the Trump administration and Israel, resulting in a triangular relationship that pushed the Warsaw agenda.
Participants’ perception is that the conference is the start of a much larger regional effort that is as much about sanctions as it is about changing narratives and forcing countries that support terrorism, namely Iran, to change their ways or go out of business.
US President Donald Trump’s advisers Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt will visit at least five Arab countries to discuss the American peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Kushner and Greenblatt will meet with senior leaders from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, all of which are to play a key role in supporting efforts to strengthen the Palestinian economy. Disagreements are likely to continue over the Palestinian issue, as can be seen by numerous regional personalities commenting on and reacting to the Warsaw conference.
Overall, the conference is notable for gathering key leaders to support attempts to rid the region of extremism from state and non-state actors, including Iran and Hezbollah.