Russia is holding a lot of the cards in the Syria crisis. We should face that | Deborah Orr

The obvious thing to do in this crisis is to capitalise on the situation’s many diplomatic opportunities, rather than loudly demand Putin accede to western demands

Our leaders are sure of one thing. Syria isn’t somewhere else. It isn’t Iraq, for example. Neither is it Afghanistan. Yet, no one claims that Syria is either of these places. Many of us simply observe that there are some highly relevant similarities.

Syria is like Iraq in that it’s a state brought into being by the judgments of colonial powers, containing various ethnic and religious groups who are unwilling to share power. Syria is like Iraq in that it has proved vulnerable to the leadership of “strong-man” dictators, who dominate the population through intimidation and fear. Afghanistan’s national identity has developed much more organically, over a much longer period. It, too, contains some similar divisions. But, currently, what Afghanistan most pertinently has in common with Syria is that it has hosted a proxy battle between the US and Russia.

So, one thing that all three countries share is a history of self-interested military and diplomatic intervention from foreign powers. Europe and the US may claim that such self-interest is in the past, and that contemporary interventions are prompted by humanitarian imperatives, as in Iraq, or in the interests of self-defence, as in Afghanistan. Increasingly, however, western leaders find that it is easier to kid themselves that they are now neutral, moral agents, without self-interest, than it is to kid their own democratic populations.

A cheap shot, often deployed, is that there is generally a great deal more enthusiasm for humanitarian intervention in oil-rich regions. But if there is truth in that, no one in power is ever likely to acknowledge it. What those in power do, however, acknowledge is that failure to act in the face of monumental human rights abuses threatens their own standing, their own pre-eminent place in the “world order”. There’s self-interest, right there.

Just as this crisis was breaking, Barack Obama cancelled a meeting with the man he needs to talk to above all others, Vladimir Putin, Assad’s great Russian ally. He cancelled because Russia gave political asylum to Edward Snowden, who fled the US in order to reveal that it told its population routine and bare-faced lies about their personal privacy.

Obviously, lying to your entire population is not remotely similar to subjecting it to a vicious reign of violent fear. Neither is insisting on taking it into a war that it doesn’t want, as Blair did with Iraq. Yet such actions do have something in common with the attitudes of dictators. Dictators tend to convince themselves that the people they rule are like children, whose opinions are naive and unsophisticated, and whose decisions have to be made for them by people who know better. It’s this kind of arrogance that democracy is supposed to guard against. The fact that no strike has yet been mounted against Syria is testament to the fact that this time, that arrogance is being held in check.

After Obama’s shock decision to take his proposed action against Syria to Congress, a couple of headlines quickly emphasised the embarrassing apology for “diplomacy” that was the alternative. “Syria crisis: Vladimir Putin under growing pressure”, the Guardian announced on Tuesday. On the same day the Telegraph reported: “Syria crisis: Israel sparks alert in Mediterranean after unannounced missile test.”

Surely the intelligent thing to do is to face the truth – that Russia is holding a lot of the cards – rather then loudly proclaim that Putin must be seen to be acceding to western demands? Again, it is self-interest that dictates that a renewed cold war is preferable to making any concession to Russia.

Yet, the obvious thing to do in this crisis is to capitalise on the situation’s many diplomatic opportunities more disinterestedly. Chief of these is the fact that – whether or not you believe in their sincerity – both Putin and Assad are insisting that the use of chemical weapons is wrong. There’s no reason to doubt Russia. Obama is fond of saying that 98% of the world’s population is signed up to the convention forbidding the use of chemical weapons in war. Russia is party to that agreement.

But Syria isn’t. A peace conference, of the kind posited in the run-up to the G20 conference this week, would offer an excellent opportunity to ask Assad to sign on the line. And why stop there? Why not invite Russia to head up an international effort to remove chemical weapons from Syria? Then neither Assad nor the rebels could use them.

Why not, indeed, ask Putin to agree that if Assad refuses to clear his country of chemical weapons, and they are then used again, by anyone, then Russia would fully support immediate strikes in retaliation?

This would be a splendid time to try to get Egypt to sign the convention as well. And Israel, as yet, has not ratified. One can hardly blame Israel for this when two hostile countries on its borders haven’t even signed. However, one can blame Israel – and also the US – for going ahead with missile testing when the region is in crisis. The excuse given was that the exercise had been long planned. Oh, dear. Could there be a more powerful declaration of the long-standing partisan interest the west has in the Middle East?

In the Middle East, people insist that all their troubles come back to Israel. It’s certainly true that some of them do. Israel, of course, is another country brought into being in the region largely by outsiders. Also, it was done without the agreement of either the majority of those living on the land at that time, or the neighbours, who have predictably proved to be so determinedly hostile. The creation of Israel has not been what anyone could call an unmitigated success, least of all the refugees whose descendants live until this day in camps, the product of a stalemate that has remained since 1948.

Israel has a right to exist, because it exists and because millions of people need it to continue to exist. But Israel’s creation was in part a response to another refugee crisis, after another terrible war. Just like all other religious groups, Judaism tends not fully to understand that its own sacred beliefs are true only to itself. I believe that the Jews are God’s chosen people no more than I believe that Christ was the son of God, or that Mohammed was God’s final prophet. How can I, when I don’t believe in God? I do believe, however, that the Middle East is the cradle of all three monotheistic religions. That’s a fact.

The idea that Israel is the product of some sort of ancient first-dibs right to a slice of the Middle East? That’s something that Jewish people – and anyone else – have every right to believe. But, in all religious groups there needs to be an understanding that even if a belief forms a crucial part of their own identity or faith, it isn’t a fact to be accepted by others who don’t share that identity or faith. A workable Israeli/Palestinian peace settlement grounded in 21st-century geopolitical fact, and stripped of ancient religious belief, is a necessary part of any wider settlement in the region.

Israeli Jews are no different to other religious, ethnic or nationalist groups in the Middle East in a basic respect: they want a land to call their own, in which they are safe. That’s only human. It’s time for the Middle East and the world to start trying to build on the things that humans have in common with each other, even if progress is difficult and slow. The things that make us different are the things we tend to insist are more important. These, unfortunately, offer no basis for agreement at all – only for continued conflict. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds