In a book titled Sphinx and Commissar, the Egyptian journalist Mohamed Heikel, who died last month, explained why Moscow had lost the loyalty of the Arab states to America in the 1970s. One reason was that the Americans were full of surprises. Every new administration injected new ideas and talent into the foreign-policy machine. With the Soviets, the regime was one of “frozen immobility” with the same lectures being delivered year after year by the same doddering old men. The only thing the Russians had to offer was arms.
This was written at a time when the then Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, declared – with more verve than exactitude – that the US held “90 per cent of the cards” in the Middle East.
Mr Heikel, with his long experience of dealing with Moscow (including fishing and hunting trips with the Soviet leadership), would no doubt be intrigued by Vladimir Putin turning the tables on the Americans. It is he who is now the master of the surprise and increasingly in control of the Syrian agenda.
With his announcement that the bulk of Russian forces are being withdrawn from Syria, he looks set to pull off his second quick military intervention, after Ukraine in 2014, disproving the American experience that the inevitable result of sending soldiers abroad is quagmire.
It would be rash to say that Mr Putin holds all the cards today. Globally, Russian forces are still dwarfed by the American military machine, but it is Washington that seems to be frozen in the Middle East.
This is hardly a secret. Under Barack Obama, the two guiding principles of the White House have been that America post-Iraq cannot achieve anything with military force in the Arab world and, in any case, there are more promising regions – such as Southeast Asia – where US power can be usefully projected.
His successor, to be elected in November, is unlikely to reverse the Obama policy of caution about military engagement, though there is always the possibility that the same policy may be camouflaged by some demonstrative and possibly ill-conceived strikes to “restore US credibility”.
One thing is clear: the Gulf states will have to ramp up their engagement with Russia for the foreseeable future now that American engagement is declining, and this will require subtlety. Initial attempts by Saudi Arabia under the late King Abdullah to moderate Russian policy in Syria did not go well.
In 2013, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the then-head of Saudi intelligence, apparently offered Mr Putin a deal to guarantee Russia oil and gas exports and buy billions of dollars of arms sales if he would end his support for the Assad regime, according to diplomatic leaks. Mr Putin was not impressed. Saudi blandishments apparently continued, linking the plummeting oil price with the Syria conflict. These also had no effect.
There has been a reassessment under King Salman and his foreign minister, Adel Al Jubeir. A well-placed diplomat in the region acknowledged that there had been an attempt to push too hard, and there was no immediate chance of forcing a drastic change in Russia’s views.
The first issue is to establish exactly the motives for Mr Putin ending his bombing campaign. At this stage it is clear that Mr Putin felt he had shown support for his ally, rescued the Al Assad regime from collapse, and demolished the hubristic aspirations of the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to control the fate of Syria.
But continued bombing raids, with high levels of casualties on the Syrian population, were harming Russia’s reputation in the region at a time when it saw an opportunity to regain its lost influence. It was time to stop.
It is clear too that patience with the Assad regime ran out when the foreign minister, Walid Muallem, ruled out any discussion on the fate of president Al Assad at the Geneva peace talks. This was a “red line”, he said. The Kremlin, it seems, was expecting a bit of flexibility from an ally it had just saved from the consequences of his own incompetence.
Mr Putin has scored some diplomatic points. He has retained the ability to manipulate the course of events in Syria, as he does in Ukraine, though he still faces western sanctions over that intervention. The Russian navy’s supply and maintenance facility at Tartus on the Mediterranean coast is intact, and provides the fleet with increased flexibility in the Mediterranean.
The big question is how much these manoeuvres have brought the end of the Syrian conflict closer. Hitherto, Russia and Iran have been working closely. It was in response to an Iranian alarm call that the Syrian army was on the point of exhaustion that Mr Putin made his move last year.
But there are clear differences between Syria’s two main allies. For Iran, the preservation of the Assad regime is a war they have to win. For all the clear signs that the Iranian people voted for change in last month’s elections, it is unlikely that the military will willingly permit the loss of their access to the Mediterranean, their Hizbollah allies and the Israeli border. At least not while Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is supreme leader.
For the Russians the relationship with Mr Al Assad is not sacrosanct. They are aware of Henry Kissinger’s jibe that in the Soviet period, Moscow had only weapons to offer the Arabs, while America could bring peace.
If they are to be a genuine power in the region, as Mr Putin intends, they need to be more constructive. He can already point to his diplomatic intervention in 2013 which saw the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons. The Syrian president ought to be feeling uncomfortable as a result of Mr Putin’s actions. Whether this presages the end of the conflict in Syria is a different matter. There are so many outside interests involved that it is hard to see a quick resolution. But at least, for the first time, the level of bloodshed is declining.
Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs
On Twitter @aphilps