x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Shared interests include Russia in regional affairs

Russia is a significant diplomatic participant in the Syrian and Iranian issues; the challenge is to find ways to work with the Russians.

Since he began a new term as Russia's president on May 7, Vladimir Putin has been on the road a lot: China, Germany, France, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. This week he added Israel, the West Bank and Jordan.

The visit to the Middle East serves notice that Russia, although sometimes seen as part of the problem regarding both Syria and Iran, is also part of the solution. But this will depend on separating the two issues, understanding Russian concerns and finding common interests.

Mr Putin aspires to restore some of Russia's lost stature in the Middle East and globally. The country lacks the heft the Soviet Union once wielded, but does have significant influence at the Security Council, as it demonstrated in quashing resolutions on Syria. Moscow regards the successful campaign against the Qaddafi regime in Libya as an example of western overreach. Partly as a result, Mr Putin has positioned himself to claim pivotal diplomatic roles on both Syria and Iran.

Russia, like most of the world, does not want Iran to have a nuclear arsenal. But Mr Putin rejects stricter sanctions and warned again this week against a military strike on Iran. But doing nothing is not an option, either: by hosting the recent P5+1 session with Iran, Moscow signalled a determination to remain involved.

For GCC states, the challenge is to find ways to work with Russia, one issue at a time, towards changing Iran's self-damaging policy.

So far, that approach has not seen any success in curbing the bloodshed in Syria. On Iran, Russia and the GCC states and others share a goal; on Syria, Mr Putin's government has rejected the widespread view that President Bashar Al Assad must eventually go. Russia continues to arm Syria, despite the regime's seemingly dim prospects for survival. At the same time, however, there is no prospect for a diplomatic solution without Moscow's role in pressuring Damascus.

The issue of Syria's future is already fraught with regional significance. And the division between Russia and other powers, the United States in particular, threatens to make this into an arena for fruitless geopolitical arm wrestling, not a solution for Syrians.

A more useful alternative would be for all parties to search for a political solution that could stop the killing.

By all the evidence, Russia will remain intensely involved in both the Syrian and Iranian issues. Mr Putin's visit to the Middle East should remind us that Russia is a pragmatic power, and on key regional interests there must be common ground.