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Russia and the U.S. are racing to negotiate with Islamists. So far, they’re neck and neck.

Meduza

Russian-mediated negotiations between the Palestinian groups Hamas and Fatah are scheduled to conclude in Moscow today. The negotiations took place amid rumors that the White House is preparing a “deal of the century” to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and may make its plan public this spring. In the last several months, Moscow and Washington have taken part in a lively contest to assert their influence in Middle Eastern conflicts, often by entering talks with parties that are widely considered extremist or terrorist groups. Here, Meduza reports on the most important episodes of that ongoing diplomatic game.

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In 2016, Russian diplomats devised what they framed as a new format for negotiations surrounding the military conflict in Afghanistan. That December, negotiations began in Moscow, but they included only Russian, Chinese, and Pakistani delegations: neither the official Afghan government in Kabul nor representatives of the Taliban participated in the talks.

Almost two years passed before the next meeting took place in November 2018. At first, renewed negotiations had been planned for early September. The internationally recognized government of Afghanistan notified Russian diplomats that its delegation would be unable to participate at that time, but Moscow’s representatives seemed unperturbed by that news. It was more important to them to speak with representatives of the Taliban, who had previously refused to negotiate with any party other than the Americans its leaders consider to be the real bosses in Afghanistan. The Russian government wanted to demonstrate that it, too, could influence the Taliban, which it nonetheless considers to be a terrorist organization. However, right before the September 2016 negotiations were set to take place, Russian Foreign Minster Sergei Lavrov postponed them for reasons that never became entirely clear.

The negotiations ultimately took place that November. Moscow was unable to organize full-fledged talks between Afghan government representatives and the Taliban because the Islamists still believed the authorities in Kabul to be under the total control of the United States. As a result, the Afghan delegation that participated opposite the Taliban was limited to a few prominent politicians, representatives of the opposition in Kabul, Afghan ex-president Hamid Karzai, and members of the Afghan High Peace Council, which was organized by the Afghan government to regulate the ongoing conflict in the country.

Many experts said the negotiations could not be considered a real breakthrough, especially because the Taliban’s delegation was not entirely representative. Nonetheless, Taliban members did agree to speak with other opponents of the current pro-American government in Kabul, which the Russian government also considers to be unfavorable to its interests.

Participants in the Moscow negotiations concerning the Afghan conflict pose for a photo op. November 9, 2018
Sergei Savostyanov / TASS / Vida Press
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In late December of 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump announced his intent to decrease the American military presence in Syria, and it almost immediately became clear that he had similar plans for Afghanistan. Trump’s actions indicated a willingness to follow up on his campaign promises — to the great disappointment of his own advisors, many of whom called the move shortsighted.

The American contingent in Afghanistan is much stronger than its counterpart in Syria: it includes 14,000 troops to the Syrian force’s 2,000. The American military’s influence in Afghanistan, where it has maintained a significant presence for 18 years, is also much greater than it is in Syria. Even the first hints that Trump planned to withdraw five thousand troops from Afghanistan in just a few months immediately opened the president up to criticism from the press and from experts in international affairs. It remains to be seen whether the remaining troops will be able to resist the advance of the Taliban, which has expanded the territory under its control by about 50 percent in recent years.

In January, it became clear that the American administration not just planning to withdraw troops from Afghanistan — it was also planning to negotiate with the Taliban itself. Roughly speaking, the plan is for the United States and its allies to withdraw their troops in exchange for a guarantee from the Taliban that the group will not permit its territory to be used for planning terrorist attacks against the U.S. and its partners. The conditions for such an agreement arose in part because the Taliban has been grappling with resistance from Afghan supporters of the Islamic State for several years.

The U.S. reached a preliminary deal with the Taliban, allowing Trump to claim that peace in Afghanistan had never been so nearly within reach. However, experts are concerned that the Taliban will simply conquer Afghanistan as soon as the withdrawal of U.S. troops is complete.

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad in the American Embassy in Kabul, January 28, 2019
U.S Embassy / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA
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The Kremlin responded to Trump’s plan for the conflict in Afghanistan by organizing new negotiations between Taliban representatives and highly-placed officials in the Afghan government. The last of those meetings took place in early February in Moscow’s President Hotel. Officially, it was the Afghan diaspora community in Moscow that organized the talks, but its representatives did not hide the fact that they received “technical support” from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The delegations present were no more representative than the ones that negotiated in November: they still did not include any official delegates from the internationally recognized Kabul government. However, the parties involved have begun discussing more specific details of the country’s future. For their part, Taliban representatives have promised that if they gain control of the country’s government, they will not place limits on women’s rights. As the February negotiations came to a close, Russian officials promised that they would ask the UN Security Council to cancel its sanctions against the Taliban. That proposal will likely be considered by the end of February.

Essentially, Moscow is aiming to stay ahead of the curve by using the planned withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan to its own advantage. The Russian government is attempting to position itself to take part in building Afghanistan’s future independently of the United States and to isolate the current Afghan government from that process. At the same time, official Russian representatives have emphasized that they only aim to help American diplomats, not to get in their way.

Negotiations about the Afghan conflict proceed in Moscow’s President Hotel. February 5, 2019
Yury Kadobnov / AFP / Scanpix / LETA
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On February 11, another set of negotiations between Palestinian political organizations began in Moscow. Both the terrorist group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, and the Fatah party, which holds power in the West Bank, are participating in the talks. Both sides are in conflict with each other as well as with Israeli forces. Meetings like these have seemed for so long like a kind of dutiful exercise that the Russian government now struggles to pass them off as a diplomatic victory.

Then, on the first day of negotiations, American news sources began reporting that Trump’s administration is preparing “the deal of the century” to regulate the Arab-Israeli conflict. The plan is rumored to contain 150 – 200 pages, and “fewer than five people” are said to be familiar with its full contents. The document will be published only after the Israeli parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for April of 2019, because the plan’s authors believe releasing it sooner could put Israelis in danger. That reasoning is one potential source of current speculation that Trump may recognize East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state.

In 2018, the American government recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and transferred its embassy there from Tel Aviv. However, it did not address the question of the borders of Jerusalem, leaving that issue to be addressed in future talks.

Judging by current reactions in Moscow, it seems that Russian diplomats have not prepared an alternative to this possible shift in American foreign policy. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov limited his response to a remark that American politicians have been promising a “deal of the century” for more than two years.

Dmitry Kartsev

Translation by Hilah Kohen