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Will Putin's strategic gambit pay off?

Hassan BarariNot long ago, Russia abandoned the Middle East leaving the United States as the only hegemon. With the end of the Cold War, Washington found itself in an undisputed position in our part of the world. The American diplomat and researcher Richard Hass called this the "American moment" in the Middle East.

With the onset of the Arab Spring and the beginning of the Syrian revolution, Putin began to see his country skating on thin ice. Moscow views the Arab Spring and particularly the ongoing conflict in Syria as a threat with which Russia must deal with. First, the Arab Spring presents a model to the Russians to emulate. Furthermore, Putin fears that radical elements may infiltrate Chechnya for instance and plan terrorist attacks against his country. Russia's sense of insecurity has been at the heart of Putin's position on Syria.

A week ago, Putin wrote in an article in The New York Times addressing the American public on Syria. Apparently, the Russian strongman sought to exploit what appears to be hesitance on the part of President Obama. To Putin, the split in the Congress, the opposition of the American public opinion to another venture in the Middle East, and the wishy-washy attitude of Obama provided him with the opening he was looking for to further deepen Obama's predicament.

While Putin was driven by the fear of an American strike against his ally in Damascus, he talked to the American people about the need to have a stable world. He underlines the importance of having a consensus among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Implicit in Putin's message is that unilateral foreign policy of President Bush cost Americans dearly and that the Americans are better off if their leadership works within a collaborative framework to deal with international crises.

To be sure, Putin substantiated his message with an initiative to destroy Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons. While it is too early to tell whether Russia is buying time to get its ally in Damascus off the hook, the Russian proposal is worth considering. Obama -- who would face a certain defeat at the hand of Congress -- picked up the Russian proposal to buy time to figure out what his country should do to restore its deterrent posture in the Middle East. This strategic gambit seems to have worked. Putin managed to discourage Obama from striking Syria. Given the domestic situation and the defeat of David Cameron in the British Parliament, Obama was left out in the cold, isolated. Meanwhile, Obama failed to get his message across to the wary American public. That said, it is not clear yet if Putin will succeed in his other more important goal: To box the United States in the Security Council where Russia can easily veto any resolution if it clashes with it's interests. Putin understands that the rules of the game at the international level should take into account two important factors. First, America suffers from fatigue and overextension. Second, other non-Western powers have risen. These two factors should push Washington to ditch once and for all unilateralism and to be bound by institutions such as the United Nations.

It is not as if Russia was in parity with the United States. By all yardsticks, the United States is much stronger than Russia. And yet, Putin seeks to be dealt with as an equal partner in running the international affairs. I am not sure that Putin will achieve this goal as many in the US see that the post-Soviet diminished Russia is in no position to be dealt with as an equal.

Before Putin can even think of turning the crisis in Syria to be his path to rectify the lopsided relationship with the United States, he needs to deliver Syria's chemical weapons. It is not enough for Putin to maintain his naysayer image to be taken seriously. Washington cannot afford to lose its deterrence in the Middle East for a long period of time. Obviously, Putin glosses over the fact that the failure of American deterrence can generate another Israeli-Iranian confrontation that may drag the US. Some American strategists think that the failure of the US deterrence will lead to a regional war that the US cannot afford not to participate.

The American administration's acquiescence to a new role for Russia is far from certain. But if Putin succeeds in working out a deal over Syria and delivers the Syrian chemical weapon, he may occupy the world's center stage not as a spoiler but as a peacemaker.


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Publication:Arab News (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia)
Geographic Code:70MID
Date:Sep 16, 2013
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