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Warsaw meeting will polarise the region further

Feb 12,2019 - Last updated at Feb 12,2019

Representatives from over 70 countries are expected to attend a two-day conference on the Middle East, which opens on Wednesday, in the Polish capital, Warsaw. The US-sponsored meeting was first announced by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a regional tour last month. At first, he said the conference would “focus on Middle East stability and peace and freedom and security in this region, and that includes an important element of making sure that Iran is not a destabilising influence”. But later, US officials said that the conference will not be dedicated to creating an anti-Iran military coalition.

A number of Arab foreign ministers will be attending the Warsaw meeting and so will Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is expected to shift focus from efforts to conclude peace with the Palestinians to Iran’s regional threat. On Saturday, Netanyahu said that “the first issue on the agenda is Iran — how to continue preventing it from entrenchment in Syria, how to thwart its aggression in the region and, above all, how to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons”.

But US media reported this week that US President Donald Trump’s senior adviser, Jared Kushner, who will be attending the meeting, will reveal parts of the administration’s much-awaited plan for Middle East’s peace; touted as the “ultimate deal”. Kushner, who will be touring Gulf countries later this month, will discuss the plan’s economic components. For a number of observers the plan, which will be announced officially in April according to US officials, is economic at its core; ignoring basic Palestinian and Arab political demands.

The Palestinians have declined an invitation to attend the conference. President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fateh movement said this week that the US-sponsored conference is “a conspiracy intended to liquidate the Palestinian cause” and that the only party delegated to speak on behalf of the Palestinians is the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

There is no doubt that the majority of Arab countries attending the meeting will not be comfortable to be seen as taking cost-free steps to normalise ties with Israel when Netanyahu and his right-wing government are shrugging off the two-state solution. Furthermore, while there is an agreement that Iran’s regional agenda is a destabilising factor, Arab states are not in the mood to be part of an anti-Iranian military alliance that includes Israel. While Pomepo was in the region, he talked about the creation of a Middle East Strategic Alliance, or MESA, whose main objective will be to counter Iranian regional ambitions.

It is not only Arab countries that have reservations about US anti-Iran plans. The EU as well as Russia and China have criticised the US for withdrawing from the nuclear agreement with Tehran without providing an alternative. They also rejected US economic sanctions and are trying to find ways to save the nuclear deal and maintain commercial ties with Tehran.

Furthermore, the US has been sending mixed messages about its presence in the region, with Trump announcing that his troops will be withdrawing from Syria soon and that Daesh has been defeated. Clearly, not all US allies in the region, as well as most members of Congress, agree with the US president.

Trump’s position on Tehran has polarised Iraqis, but his recent announcement that American troops will remain in Iraq to watch Iran has triggered calls by almost all Iraqi political players for a complete US withdrawal.

So what does the US hope to achieve from the Warsaw conference? Other than demonising Iran, it is unlikely that Washington will get over 70 countries to adopt a unified policy against Tehran at this stage. And without Russian cooperation, Iran’s military influence and presence in Syria will continue. In fact the Warsaw meeting will only strengthen Russian-Iranian alliance; something that Israel and other countries in the region see as a major geopolitical threat.

For now, it seems that unveiling parts of Trump’s Middle East plan will be the main outcome of the conference. It will be interesting to see how Israel, as well as Arab and European representatives, react to Kushner’s presentation. Chances are that the proposed plan will mark a major departure from UN resolutions, the Oslo agreement as well as all previous US initiatives and policy positions. This will be the first step in a tricky sales pitch that Kushner will be making during the coming weeks as he tours the region disclosing components of Trump’s plan. And one can assert that reactions to the plan, publicly and privately, will polarise the region further and marginalise the Palestinians.

And yet, Arab countries that are close allies of Washington will find it difficult to reject the plan outrightly. It is possible that individual reactions to the plan could strain relations with the US. This is why the upcoming Arab League summit in Tunisia will impose yet another test to pan-Arab consensus over one of the most crucial regional conflicts; one that the world has sadly failed to address.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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