Russia’s comeback to the Middle East and North Africa region under Vladimir Putin’s presidency had a game changing impact since the Kremlin ended rebels’ advance against Syrian President Bashar Assad through its military intervention, beginning in 2015. Also, Libya has been a scene where Russia confronted the internationally-recognized government, attempting to install Khalifa Haftar as the country’s ruler. Moscow and the UAE, apparently, have come to an understanding recently that Assad must stay in power. Mohammed Dahlan appears as a good mixer, developing warm relations with Russians on a common point that both are disturbed with Islamists. Being tasked with undermining armed struggle of the Syrian opposition as well as allegedly helping the mainstream Muslim rhetoric to combat radical Islamism within Russian territories, Dahlan, in return, has been seeking Russia’s support for its cause to become Palestinian Authority’s leader, pushing Mahmoud Abbas out. 

“[Dahlan] began working as an informal UAE emissary to the Kremlin, helping coordinate the UAE’s military action to cooperate with Russian interests.”

Daily Mail, 12 March 2018

2754373 09.12.2015 9 декабря 2015. Члены попечительского совета, палестинский политический лидер Мохаммед Дахлан (слева) и Сэмьюэл Данилович перед началом заседания попечительского совета Мариинского театра в Кремле. Алексей Дружинин / РИА Новости
December 9, 2015. Board of Trustees members Mohammed Dahlan (left), a Palestinian politician, and Samuel Danilovich are seen here in the Kremlin prior to a meeting of the Mariinsky Theatre Board of Trustees.
sergey dahlan
Sergey Lavrov and Dahlan in a meeting in Moscow - November 2021
randa dahlan
Randa Kassis meets Dahlan, September 2017.
Dahlan and Lavrov in Amman in 2007
Dahlan meets Mikhail Bogdanov in 2018
Dahlan meets Mikhail Bogdanov in 2018

A 2018-dated Daily Mail report described Dahlan as a “conduit from the UAE to Putin’s Kremlin,” underlining his fluency in Russian and claiming that he was “working as an informal UAE emissary to the Kremlin, helping coordinate the UAE’s military action to cooperate with Russian interests.” Quoting an anonymous source, the report stated that Dahlan’s role in UAE-Russia relations was not simply giving advice but “going on secret missions, meeting at the Kremlin on behalf of MBZ [Mohammed bin Zayed, UAE’s de facto ruler].”  

It is not clear what secret missions Dahlan has been fulfilling in Russia. Still, it is evident that he has developed very solid relations that he has been appointed as a of board of trustees in Mariinsky Theater by Russian President Vladimir Putin. It remains a mystery whether Dahlan has developed a passion for art but tells us that he managed to wriggle himself into Putin’s inner circle, attending Putin-chaired meetings of the Theater. 

Still, it is a fact that Dahlan has been seeking Russian help to beat his former friends, current foes, primarily Mahmoud Abbas. In a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Dahlan declared his intention for a reconciliation with the Fatah leadership. This meeting was held in November 2 in Moscow, allegedly at UAE’s request. Russia invited Abbas as well on November 23 for further talks. One of Dahlan’s aides, Dimitri Diliani told Turkey’s Anadolu Agency on November 5 that “Russia is mediating to bring about a reconciliation within the Fatah movement, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is mediating and deploying efforts to put an end to the Fatah division between Dahlan’s current and Abbas’ Fatah movement.” He also stated that “Dahlan announced during the meeting with Lavrov his readiness for internal reconciliation in Fatah.” However, bizarrely he denied these statements later. A Fatah official told the Anadolu Agency that they had no intention to reconcile with Dahlan. Still, Dahlan seems to be eager to appear as an alternative to the current Palestinian administration given the fact that the Fatah general conference has been scheduled for March 2022. He has recently been signaling in the Arab media that he was willing to turn back to the Palestinian politics soon.

Earlier this year, Dahlan sent a delegation to Moscow to meet Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov. This delegation was headed by Samir al-Masharawi, one of the founders of Dahlan’s Fatah Democratic Reform group. While Russian diplomats pledged their support for reconciliation within the Fatah movement, such attempts were refused by Abbas.

This was not Dahlan’s first attempt to convince Russians for mediation to overcome his rivalry with the Fatah leadership. In 2018, in an interview with Russia Today, he tried to please Russians with saying that the US would never accept an independent Palestine, describing the “deal of century” as a “disaster.” Instead, he proposed the creating of great Israel for both Palestinians and Israelis with Jerusalem as the common capital. Russia does not support such an idea and adheres to two state solution but refrains from supporting the Palestinian cause so far that would harm its relations with Israel. Still, Dahlan seems to be a good option for Russians in Palestine. For instance, Leonid Slutsky First Deputy Chairman of the State Duma’s Committee on International Affairs suggested Israelis in 2018 to hold a meeting with Lavrov and Dahlan.

Covid Diplomacy

Dahlan has benefitted from the opportunities, offered by the COVID-19 pandemic as well. Through using his close relations with both Russians and UAE, organized the delivery of Russia-made Sputnik V vaccination to Gaza without any objection from Israel. He also convinced the UAE to pay for these vaccines. On 21 February the first batch of vaccines arrived in Gaza via Egypt. The first batch contained 20.000 doses while Abbas administration’s shipment confined to 2.000 doses only. Dahlan thanked the UAE for the support. More importantly, Hamas, which Dahlan attempted to overthrow in 2007 with bloody clashes thanked ‘comrade Dahlan.’ One month later, Dahlan secured the shipment of another 40.000 Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccines to Gaza.

Russia’s benefits from Dahlan

Obviously, Russians have not been courting Dahlan in exchange for nothing. Dahlan might have a role in curbing the opposition groups’ weapon procurement. In fact, UAE did provide the rebels with weapons, again, with Dahlan’s possible intervention. For instance, in 2015, Switzerland suspended arms sales to the UAE on the grounds that these weapons were ending up at the hands of undesired groups in Syria. Yet, the rift with Turkey, which has been backing the rebels both politically and militarily and carried out several military incursions to Syria’s north convinced the UAE to refrain from backing the anti-regime elements in Syria. This policy even evolved into a diplomatic support to the Assad regime as the UAE along with Algeria has been pushing the Arab League to abolish Syria’s suspension.

Dahlan was tasked in 2017 by Russia with holding talks with the opposition groups in bid to persuade them for either submitting to the Assad regime or accepting presidential and parliamentary elections. This task coincided with the Astana talks, held among Turkey, Russia and Iran and observed by the UAE and Egypt. It is also noteworthy that Dahlan has been backing Ahmad al-Jarba, a prominent member of the Syrian opposition. Dahlan even participated in the inauguration of al-Jarba’s Tomorrow Movement in Cairo in 2015. He again appeared during al-Jarba’s announcement of his political party, again in the Egyptian capital. This time Dahlan was together with Russia’s ambassador to Egypt. Al-Jarba visited Moscow to hold a meeting with Lavrov in November 2021. Also, Dahlan has been promoting Randa Kassis, a woman and non-Islamist figure within the opposition. In conclusion, Dahlan has been fulfilling the duty to seek a way for reconciliation between the opposition groups and the regime while picking up the most suitable opposition figures, which basically mean that they should be non-Islamist and preferably unsupported by Ankara.

Dahlan’s another favor to Russia would be the recruitment of some prominent figures of Russian Muslim communities with the aim of eliminating Moscow’s fears over rapidly expanding radical ideas within the country. This allegation overlaps with UAE’s involvement in Chechenia in terms of favoring a softer Islam that doesn’t allow growing jihadism in the region. UAE’s relations with Chechenia under Ramazan Kadyrov’s leadership have grown so solid that one of main roads in Grozny was named Mohamed bin Zayed. In exchange of their great respect to UAE rulers, Chechens asked them to invest 2.3 billion dollars. It is unknown whether Dahlan has a role in mediating relations with Chechens but there are claims that he has recruited some Tartars, who combat Islamism in their autonomous region. A prolific writer on the threats, posed by the expansion of jihadist ideology against Tartars and other Muslim communities, and therefore against the Russian state, Rais Suleimanov was allegedly recruited by Dahlan for pumping more fear.

 

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