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Russians Revive MENA Role—With Tacit Okay from US

Russia has taken a major plunge back into the Middle East and North Africa diplomatic maelstrom with at least tacit approval from Washington. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is keeping US Secretary of State John Kerry informed about Moscow’s renewed efforts, particularly on Syria, while Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov has been designated as President Vladimir Putin’s new personal Middle East envoy and point-man on the Syria effort.

This week, Bogdanov was in Istanbul, meeting with Syrian opposition factions; Beirut, where he met with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, and Damascus, where he met President Bashar al Assad and other Syrian officials. In Damascus, his primary assignment was to get a clear commitment from Assad that the Syrian government will not only participate in a new round of diplomatic talks with opposition leaders, but will actually engage in negotiations over a future coalition government.

A week before the Bogdanov mission, a delegation of Syrian opposition leaders was in Moscow, meeting with Putin, Lavrov and other top Russian officials. During those talks, the opposition leaders expressed their own willingness to renew talks with the Damascus government.

Russia is once again in the middle of complex diplomacy, aimed at ending the nearly four-year old Syrian civil war, following the failure of the earlier Geneva I and Geneva II negotiations. This time around, however, the situation may be more favorable to a breakthrough.

Unlike the earlier efforts, President Assad indicated to Bogdanov that he was prepared to enter into genuine negotiations. Whether he follows through on those tentative pledges remains to be seen.

The United States has a stake in the new Russian initiative for several reasons, despite the fact that US-Russian tensions have reached an all-time high since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. The US-Russia tensions are largely over NATO eastward expansion, the Ukraine crisis, Western sanctions against Moscow, and the Russian belief that the Obama Administration and NATO are gunning for regime change in Russia.

On the other hand, the US knows Russia cannot be excluded. First, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other top Pentagon and US Intelligence Community strategists have concluded that the Islamic State cannot be defeated as long as the Syrian civil war rages and the issue of the future Syrian government remains unsettled.

In recent discussions in Basel, Switzerland on the sidelines of a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, conferred on Syria, and Lavrov told Kerry that Moscow shares Washington’s conclusion that the Syrian crisis must be settled diplomatically to insure the defeat of the Islamic State.

Secondly, there is an evolving consensus in the Pentagon that military pressure may have to be increased on the Assad government to force the diplomatic process. This is a slippery slope that the Joint Chiefs have successfully avoided. In September 2013, President Obama had actually authorized military strikes against a large number of Syrian military and government “high value targets,” only to be persuaded at the last moment to delay the strike order. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey had played a pivotal role in reversing the President’s decision. That opened the door for the Russian initiative to get the Syrian government to dismantle its chemical weapons arsenal and production.

The situation has changed dramatically in the ensuing 15 months since President Obama called off the attacks. The rise of the Islamic State has been the most dramatic change, along with the serious degrading of the Western backed “moderate” Syrian opposition. Train of a new, improved Free Syrian Army at secured training facilities in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar have not yet begun, though the decision to do so is already made.

Under these circumstances, the Pentagon and the Obama White House are revisiting options for more limited military actions against the Assad government—aimed at convincing them to genuinely join a diplomatic process—not at regime change.

Russia’s role in the renewed diplomatic effort has seen a flurry of activity, directed at reviving Moscow’s institutional relations with the League of Arab States and the Gulf Cooperation Council. Foreign Minister Lavrov spent several days in Khartoum, Sudan last week, attending a ministerial meeting of a Russian-Arab League council, and a similar Russia-GCC meeting on trade and industry has been announced to take place in Bahrain in mid-December.

President Putin’s brief visit to Ankara to meet with President Recip Erdogan also represented a surprise breakthrough. Russia cancelled the planned South Stream gas pipeline to Europe and instead reached a deal with Turkey to expand existing pipelines from the Caspian region to include large volumes of Russian gas, to be stored near the Turkey-Greece border for distribution in southern Europe. Russia also inked an agreement to build Turkey’s first commercial nuclear power plant.

Any viable solution to the Syria crisis will require Turkish approval or acquiescence, as well as that of Saudi Arabia and the GCC. Putin, Lavrov and Bogdanov’s recent Middle East outreach—particularly in light of the tacit cooperation with Washington—may serve as another boost to the Syria effort.

The recent stop-over in Moscow by French François President Hollande, the first visit to Russia by a European head of state since the start of the Ukraine crisis, enabled Putin and Hollande to confer on the MENA situation, particularly the Syria crisis.

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