In a bid to reassert itself in a region where it long held sway, Russia has re-entered the Middle East diplomatic fray by serving as a go-between for Israel and Syria and by offering to host a follow-up meeting to last week’s peace summit in Annapolis, Md.
In the run-up to the summit, to which Syria was invited only at the last moment, a special envoy of Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered messages between Damascus and Jerusalem, according to the Israeli daily Ma’ariv. The emissary, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Sultanov, reportedly met with top Syrian and Israeli leaders, and in recent weeks is alleged to have made two secret visits to the Syrian capital.
As Russia aims to become a player on the world scene, it remains a secondary player in the Middle East, according to regional experts.
“Russia under Putin has been trying to gain a role in the Middle East peace process for several years, based on the fact that it has relations with everyone: Israel, but also with Syria and even Hamas,” said Mark Katz, a professor of government and politics at George Mason University. “But the reality is, they can’t deliver a deal between Israel and Syria.”
Russia, which has close ties with Syria dating back to the Soviet era, has long called for a broad conference including Israel’s neighboring Arab states. And while only Washington is considered capable of pushing both sides to reach a compromise, Moscow can be a reassuring presence for a Baathist regime in Damascus ever fearful of the close ties between Israel and the United States.
“It seems that this may be a compromise in terms of Syria getting the international recognition and participation it has been looking for in any Syrian-Israeli track without the Bush administration taking the lead role, which would be counter to what the U.S. has been doing and saying vis-à-vis Syria the last few years,” said David Lesch, a professor of Middle East history at San Antonio’s Trinity College who has met regularly with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. “It is also a reflection of the more active diplomatic posture of Russia, and Syria’s rehabilitation allows Moscow to play a more important role.”
While no official resumption of Israeli-Syrian talks is in the offing, both sides have shown signs of moderation in recent weeks, a sharp contrast to the tensions created by the Israeli raid on an alleged nuclear site in Syria in September. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who paid an impromptu visit to Moscow in October, told Yediot Aharonot last week that he had personally insisted the Bush administration invite Syria to the Annapolis conference.
Moreover, Washington, which had advised Jerusalem against holding substantive talks with Damascus, has quietly changed tack in recent weeks and adopted a hands-off approach. And after repeatedly saying there was no point in talking to Syria, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has met twice this year with her Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moallem, to talk officially about Syrian interference in Iraq and Lebanon.
Nowhere has the recent thaw in American-Syrian relations been felt more than in Lebanon. After months of wrangling over the election of a new president, the anti-Syrian bloc in Parliament and Damascus’s allies in Beirut agreed to back the candidacy of the widely respected head of the army, General Michel Suleiman.
“There are connections between what is going on in Lebanon and what went down in Annapolis,” Lesch said. “Essentially, the Syrians have been fairly cooperative in Lebanon… I think this is one of the reasons Syria received an invitation to Annapolis, and this is exactly what Bashar wants: positioning himself as a valued broker with regard to Lebanon and Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran. It seems the United States and others are beginning to see Syria’s relations with these entities as assets, as well, rather than as liabilities. This is definitely something that Bashar is pushing for.”