Russia’s proposal on Syria would be a comeback for a country that was gradually eclipsed in the region by the US after the 1973 Middle East war, with then-Egyptian president Anwar Sadat expelling Soviet advisers, making peace with Israel, and embarking upon a strategic alliance with Washington.
Russia’s current interests in the region are both political and strategic. Moscow has long tried to position itself as a force for resolution of the Israel-Palestine dispute, repeatedly and unsuccessfully calling for a Middle East peace conference.
It also has strong interest in resolving the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program, which is complex: While Russia apparently believes an Iran possessing nuclear weapons would be destabilizing for the region, it is also interested in doing more business in the nuclear sphere with Iran, and generally in the region.
Georgy Mirsky, the top Middle East expert with the Institute for World Economy and International Relations, a government-funded think tank in Moscow, said in a blog posting that the chemical weapons initiative “can be called almost the only really smart and useful step of Russian diplomacy” on the Syria war.
Some say Putin was merely seizing a chance offered by an ideal set of circumstances that would be difficult to replicate elsewhere: Russia is al-Assad’s sole major ally except for Iran, giving Putin influence; and it has a naval base in Syria’s port of Tartus, providing a possible storage site for chemical agents.
“Syria is really the only country in the region where Russia can play this role,” said Eugene Rogan, a fellow at the Middle East Centre at St Antony’s College at the University of Oxford.
An unexpected outcome could be what Rogan called “a bit of detente between Putin and Obama” — suggesting the US president, far from chafing at the interference, might be quietly grateful for a valuable assist.
Syria also has reasons to be amenable: Al-Assad has no plausible option of using chemical weapons in the near future; by giving them up — or entering a prolonged process aimed at achieving this — he may live to fight another day.
Watching in the wings is Iran, where leaders must gauge the credibility of the US threat to use all means — including force — to prevent nuclear weaponization.
In Israel, there was much angst this week over what Iran’s mullahs might conclude.
“From the hesitations and weakness of Obama, severe lessons [will be] learned,” said Danny Gillerman, a former Israeli ambassador to the UN. “It is a message to Iran and North Korea that the allies of the US cannot trust it and that its enemies can do what they want... I think particularly regarding Iran is it very severe.”
Obama “has succeeded in taking us back to a two-power world,” Gillerman said.
Many would disagree. The rise of powers from China and India to Brazil and South Africa, the halting yet continuing efforts at European integration, and the chaos of globalization all seem to point to a truly multipolar world emerging in the 21st century.
However, for this week at least, a generation that did not know the Cuban missile crisis or the Berlin Wall watched rapt, as the White House and the Kremlin, just like in the old days, drew their lines in the sand.