Analysis

'Painfully unproductive': Plenty of tension, and little progress on Mideast at Munich gathering

On the third day of talks at the Munich Security Conference, any optimists still wandering the halls were stopped cold by the barbed battles of the Middle East. In attempting diplomatic inroads, the result was a display of intractable disputes over drones, borders, military spending and loyalty to foreign powers.

A fragmented, fraying landscape at the Munich Security Conference hints at potential for new Mideast conflict

'Do not test Israel's resolve,' he says during security conference in Munich 0:42

On the third day of talks, any optimists still wandering the halls at the Munich Security Conference were stopped cold by the barbed battles of the Middle East.

Witness that hunk of metal hoisted high by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while on stage.

It was more than a prop to make an angry point — proof, he said, that an Iranian drone had crossed into Israeli territory before his forces shot it down last week. 

It was also an apt symbol for the fragmented, fraying landscape that could well bring the region to a greater, debilitating war. 

Intractable disputes

In attempting diplomatic inroads among Mideast players, the security conference was treated to a display of intractable disputes over drones, borders, military spending and loyalty to foreign powers, among other things.

Representatives from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, Qatar and Lebanon entered the live-streamed fray. 

And yet, there were no breakthroughs. The overall talks here were discouraging enough to prompt even the conference chair — a career diplomat — to declare: "I've not been fully reassured by the discussion."

On the Mideast front, Syria was front and centre.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who held up part of a downed drone at the Munich Security Conference on Sunday as a warning to Iran, prompted a cascade of admonitions and an airing of longstanding complaints. (The Associated Press)

Granted, given Syria's forever war, optimism about the region would have been difficult even without the latest tangle that saw Israeli jets shoot down the drone, target sites inside Syria, then Syrian defences in turn shooting down an Israeli jet.

But on a day — Sunday — apparently choreographed by the Munich conference organizers to encourage dialogue on stage, the result instead was recriminatory theatre. 

And none of the multitude of international players involved in Syria's conflict was immune.

Netanyahu's show-and-tell warning to Iran — "do not test Israel's resolve" — prompted a cascade of admonitions, alongside an airing of longstanding bitter complaints.

On a later panel discussion, Lebanese Defence Minister Yacoub Sarraf sharply pointed out that the sound of Israeli drones in the sky are a regular feature of life in Lebanon (especially in the south, a Hezbollah stronghold).

He even admonished organizers and Netanyahu for the strict security clampdown as the Israeli prime minister entered the conference venue to speak.

"We froze our butts outside," he said resentfully.

Then Sarraf issued a warning of his own.

"Watch out, we will defend ourselves," he said. "We also have partners. We also have friends. We also have people who are willing to die for their country."

Presumably that was a reference to the Iran-backed Hezbollah, which fought an inconclusive conflict with Israel in 2006.

Lately, there's been a lot of talk about the possibility of another confrontation. Yesterday, UN Secretary General Antonio Gueterres separately said a reprise of the faceoff would be "the worst nightmare."

'The greatest threat to our world'

Netanyahu made scant reference to anything but Iran in his speech, much of it focused, still, on the international nuclear deal with Tehran, which U.S. President Donald Trump also abhors.

Netanyahu accused Iran of expansionist designs, calling that "the greatest threat to our world." It was an accusation later echoed by Saudi Arabia's foreign minister.

Netanyahu ominously promised Israel would defend itself, if necessary, not only against Iran's proxies, but also, Iran itself.

Plumes of smoke rise on the air from inside Syria, as seen from Turkey, in January 2018. There are so many different parties on the ground in there that the result could be new conflicts. (Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press)

The Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who helped negotiate the nuclear deal, gave as good as he got — over Israel's treatment of Palestinians, over its activities in Lebanon and Syria. But not before dismissing Netanyahu's drone-part performance as a "cartoonish circus" which "does not even deserve any dignity of a response."

He too had ominous warnings, one to the U.S. against pulling out of the Iran deal. 

"I can assure you Iran will respond. We will respond seriously … people will be sorry for taking erroneous actions they did," Zarif said.

On Iran's side in defending the nuclear deal, were some of its key architects: including former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who nevertheless declared the Middle East "clearly one of the two most dangerous places in the world."

The other supportive voice was Russian lawmaker Aleksey Pushkov, said there was clearly "a lobby for war against Iran.

"You bomb Iran and then you do what? What happens next?"

Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif dismissed Netanyahu's holding up of a drone as a "cartoonish circus" not worthy of response. (Sven Hoppe/dpa/Associated Press)

Still he was one of the more optimistic voices appearing on that stage — lauding what he called the open channels between the various players in Syria — including Russia, which has helped keep the Assad regime on a firm footing.

"Of course the situation is very complicated there are a number of actors in Syria. But I don't think that we are doomed to new wars."

Otherwise, attempts to find positive common ground seemed largely to falter. 

Qatar's emir took on Saudi Arabia and its allies, who have frozen him out. Turkey's foreign minister denounced the U.S. decision to declare Jerusalem Israel's capital, saying it has "fuelled the tension." The Arab League secretary general cautioned Turkey over its military operations against Kurdish forces on its border with Syria. 

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov criticized the Western approach on regime change in the Middle East, blaming it for chaos, a surge in international terrorism and illegal migration.

There were occasional mentions of the horrific civilian suffering both in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has led the charge — and in Syria, where the regime is on the offensive near Damascus.

"I see an ugly, ugly confrontation in Syria," said Ahmad Aboul-Gheit. "I see great powers competing amongst themselves and regional powers intervening in Syrian affairs that would for sure lead to an non-settlement in Syria."

A display featuring missiles and a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is seen at Baharestan Square in Tehran, Iran in September 2017. (Nazanin Tabatabaee Yazdi/Reuters)

In an interview with CBC, the outgoing director general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons fretted over continued chemical attacks in Syria.

Staffan de Mistura, the UN's envoy on Syria, said he had never before seen so many major players "militarily, personally, directly involved and engaged inside Syria, or across Syria."

This is no proxy war, he said. Syria is also fragmenting. The political talks are painfully unproductive.

"Yes I am very worried."

About the Author

Nahlah Ayed

Foreign Correspondent

Nahlah Ayed is a CBC News correspondent based in London. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's covered major world events and spent nearly a decade working in and covering conflicts across the Middle East. Earlier, Ayed was a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.