The last mediator

Abdel-Moneim Said
Thursday 4 Jul 2019

Behind the scenes, it is Russia that has played the most important role in calming the waters of recent conflicts in the Middle East. Can it play the same role between Iran and the US

Russia is the third of the triumvirate of superpowers in the world today, the first two being the US and China. It is not uniform in its sources of political, economic and military strength.

But regardless of the mixture between these ingredients, it definitely has an influential role to play on our planet. It is not a great economic power.

No Russian refrigerator, car or computer has acquired international repute, and while it has made its mark in the aerospace industries, it relies on the West and China for advanced civil technology. 

Russia does not have a high-tech company such as Apple or Alibaba. The largest companies in Russia are the oil and gas extraction companies.

What makes Russia a superpower is, firstly, a recent history in occupying that status in the days when Moscow was the capital of the Soviet Union.

This makes modern day Russia a superpower by hand-me-down, so it has inherited the diplomatic and political conventions and traditions that enable it to behave like one.

Secondly, an important part of this legacy is its nuclear military capacities which are sufficient to destroy the world several times over. Although these capacities could not prevent the Soviet Union from collapse, they need to be taken into account in the current international interplay. 

This is all the more the case because, thirdly, it has considerable conventional military force at its disposal and the ability to use it, as we have seen in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria where it demonstrated the ability to alter balances of power and check NATO’s expansion in Central and Eastern Europe and in the Middle East.

Fourthly, it has a “strongman” who is astute and deft in the uses of power and diplomacy. Over the course of the past two decades, Vladimir Putin not only steered Russia out of that dark 1990s decade, he ensured it recovered much of the ground it had lost as a superpower.

Putin largely personifies the role of the individual in history, the leader who can lead his country from one stage to another, radically different one: from weakness to strength, and from degradation to pride. When Russian forces appeared in the Middle East, in the Syrian theatre, history changed. 

The Syrian theatre is not an easy one in the scheme of regional conflicts. This is not just because of the collapse of the state, the multiplicity of sects and factions, or the success that the Islamic State (IS) group had in setting up a “caliphate” state.

It is also and more importantly due to the large array of regional and international forces intervening there, from the US and NATO countries to Hizbullah which is fighting Iran’s wars by proxy and Turkey which seeks a foothold in northern Syria to prevent the emergence of any Kurdish entity and probably to resurrect some of the Ottoman presence that had existed before World War I.

But it was mostly Moscow that succeeded in wielding its military, political and diplomatic might in a way that rescued the Syrian state, toppled the IS caliphate and forged a tripartite relation together with Turkey and Iran in Astana to search for solutions, conclude deals leading to disengagements and de-escalations, and to relocate opposition factions and militias.

Moreover, it managed to do all this while coordinating with the US to avert collisions between Russian and US aircraft and with Israel in order to create a buffer zone in Syria between Iran and Israel.

These great achievements did not put an end to the recalcitrant Syrian crisis that has dragged on since the betrayed Arab Spring. The conflict in Idlib is still raging.

But they set the crisis on the path if not to a peace agreement, then at least to the restoration of calm. This could not have happened without a considerable amount of Russian military and diplomatic acumen.

In international relations, military and diplomatic successes can be turned into assets that can be used in other areas. In its handling of the Syrian crisis, Russia intensified its relations with all concerned parties in the Middle East.

Right now, it is drawing on this to help resolve the Iranian crisis. Just last week, it intervened through both secret and public channels to prevent an outbreak of war between the US and Iran, all the while keeping a low profile so as not to undermine the special status of the US and President Trump.

Through the network of meetings that took place in Jerusalem with the US and Israel, in Moscow with Egypt, and over the phone continuously with Turkey and Iran, Moscow has carved out for itself an indispensable role in the current crisis, especially now that the efforts on the part of Japan, France, Britain, Switzerland and Iraq have failed to keep the US-Iranian escalation away from the brink. 

One of the reasons the crisis has spiralled is that neither side can achieve the end game it set its sights on. The US wants to take the nuclear agreement back to square one and renegotiate the whole thing, and other things as well. Iran wants to keep the existing agreement intact. (Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Arab states want a solution that will stop Iran’s proxies, the Houthis, and end the war in Yemen in favour of the legitimate government.)

The solution to this dilemma is to convene talks between the parties that signed the original nuclear agreement with Iran (the P5+1) to re-examine the current crisis and the demands of the various parties.

Such a meeting would enable Iran to say that it had not returned to square one while the US could say that it forced Iran to backdown and negotiate a new agreement.

Then all participant parties (which is where Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany come into play) can focus on a single issue and reach an agreement that may not necessarily be radically different from the first. 

A model for this solution can be found in the NAFTA agreement between the US, Canada and Mexico, when Trump suggested abolishing it while Canada and Mexico insisted on keeping it.

Negotiations produced an agreement that is almost identical to the first (some have said it is 90 per cent the same), but Trump said that it achieved US interests.

So, all sides won in the end. The agreement remained largely intact and Trump was able to claim that he had struck a better deal than his predecessors.

Can Russia engineer something of this sort? Can it take advantage of the G20 meetings and the one-on-one between Putin and Trump to promote a formula for revising the nuclear deal, one that could be acceptable to Iran whose interests in Syria overlap with Russia’s? Russia was the link that facilitated the Iranian-Israeli “deal” that defined their spheres of influence and protection in Syria and that determined that a 100-kilometre distance was sufficient to keep their “vital” interests separate.

In the tripartite meeting in Jerusalem between US National Security Adviser John Bolton, Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and Russian Secretary of the Security Council Nikolai Patrushev, the latter made a point of acknowledging Iran’s need to combat terrorism, recognising the role it is playing in this regard, and therefore to take Iran’s interests in Syria into account.

It could be Moscow has taken this stance as a means to defuse the crisis between the US and Russia. It is the last mediator, and if it fails the guns will not remain silent.

*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the regional Center for Strategic Studies.

* *A version of this article appears in print in the 4 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The last mediator

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