Russian President Vladimir Putin is in the process of reviving a tradition of Russian Church-State diplomacy in the Middle East that may hold the key to successfully solving the Syrian and Iranian crises.
In the course of these efforts, Russia is also in the process of greatly enhancing its power projection in the region and reopening large-scale arms sales to countries that been outside Russian reach since the fall of Nasser.
The Russian footprint in the Near East has greatly expanded. After brokering the Syria chemical weapons deal and helping to enforce strict adherence by the Assad government, President Putin is pressing for the convening of a Geneva II conference to solve the real Syria crisis. On Sunday, November 10, Putin initiated a telephone call with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. While details of the phone conversation have been kept secret, it was notable that the very next day, the Saudi-linked head of the Syrian National Coalition, Ahmad al-Jarba announced that the group's leadership had agreed to participate in the Geneva II meeting without the precondition that Assad leave power.
Simultaneous to the Putin-Abdullah talks, Russian foreign minister Lavrov and defense minister Shoigu made an historic visit to Cairo, where they reached a series of agreements, including a $2 billion arms sale which will be paid by Saudi Arabia. In Cairo, Lavrov gave a defacto endorsement to the "non-coup" that took place in July with the ouster of President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood from power.
As Lavrov and Shoigu were meeting with their Egyptian counterparts and Gen. al-Sissi, the foreign affairs director of the Russian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Hilarion, was in Beirut and Vatican City, promoting a joint Russian Orthodox-Catholic protection of the Christians living in the Levant. On November 25, President Putin will be in Rome to meet personally with Pope Francis I.
All of these Russian diplomatic manuevers have a common objective: to expand Russia's political, military and economic clout in the region, while helping to bring about an added degree of stability in the most volatile region in the world. Russia has given Washington the lead role in pursuing the P5+1 agenda with Iran, given the apparent rapport that has developed between secretary of state Kerry and foreign minister Zarif. Lavrov has recently praised Kerry's tireless work in pursuit of an interim agreement between Iran and the P5+1. We could see the makings of a new arrangement among leading powers to bring a modicum of stability to the Persian Gulf and Near East.
For President Obama, this would be a welcome relief from the collapse of his presidency into lame duck status or worse. It burned him badly that Forbes magazine this week declared President Putin of Russia to be the most powerful leader in the world, with Obama coming in a very weak second. But so what.