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.
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.
Dan Perry has covered the Middle East since the 1990s, was previously The Associated Press’ Europe-Africa editor and currently leads their text coverage in the region.