With a few days’ worth of surprise diplomacy, Russian President Vladimir Putin has revived memories of an era many thought was long gone, when Washington and Moscow jostled for influence while others looked on.
Whatever happens with its proposal to relieve Syria of chemical weapons, Russia, at least for now, has re-emerged as a central player in the Middle East. And for good measure, it is seen as a player that does not easily dump allies.
That is meaningful in a region where US’ sudden abandonment of ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak two years ago has emerged as a seminal moment, focusing the minds of many an authoritarian on the sometimes ephemeral nature of US support.
By contrast, Putin braved outrage by standing by his Syrian ally, claiming publicly there was insufficient evidence that Damascus used chemical weapons on Aug. 21 — and even hinting he would somehow assist Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in case of a military strike.
The way events ultimately play out — in impressions as well as with facts on the ground — will also resonate with Iran, whose leaders surely are watching as the clock ticks toward another possible showdown, this one over their nuclear program.
“The message delivered in Syria will be carefully received in Iran,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been pressing the world to force Iran to abandon its programs before it achieves weaponization — a goal Tehran denies.
Complications may well bedevil a disarming of Syria’s chemical weapons. With trust in short supply, verification will be an issue that could drag on, and some will doubt Syria has ever completely come clean. Security for inspectors may also become an issue, since the stockpile is believed to be scattered all around a country that is an unpredictable and ferocious war zone.
However, an impressive thing has happened already: the arresting, at least for the moment, of what had looked like a march toward a US military operation that domestic and world opinion did not want and might have skirted the edges of international law.
Even the administration of US President Barack Obama seemed uncomfortable with the puzzling scenario in which officials argued an attack is essential, but also explained it must not alter the course of Syria’s civil war — betraying little desire to choose between a discredited dictator and a rebel movement increasingly dominated by jihadi elements who hate the West.
That a face-saving climbdown might have been engineered by the Kremlin adds irony to what is at the very least a tactical victory in global strategic diplomacy. A Kremlin leader seen as a hard-hearted utilitarian, self-serving and occasionally brutal, may find new associations with peaceful resolutions and deft realpolitik.
“Putin appeared to save Obama from a potential embarrassment domestically,” said Leon Aron, the top Russia policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington. “It’s a huge international geostrategic win for Putin... Russia is on equal footing now as a power in the Middle East.”
Putin hosted a G20 summit Sept. 5 to 6 that tested US ties with Russia and saw tensions rising over foreign policy issues. Heading into the meeting, however, he offered an upbeat assessment of his relationship with Obama.
“We work, we argue about some issues. We are human. Sometimes one of us gets vexed, but I would like to repeat once again that global mutual interests form a good basis for finding a joint solution to our problems,” Putin said in an interview.