There's a deal that Russian President Vladimir Putin put on the table Monday in his address to world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly: Let's stop talking about Ukraine and let's focus on working together to defeat the Islamic State.
A caveat? Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is going to remain in his job, at least for the time being.
A bitter-sounding Mr. Putin made it clear he didn't expect the United States to accept his offer. He spent most of his speech portraying the United States as an international troublemaker, the main cause of the unrest that has swept the Middle East and Eastern Europe in recent years.
The United States, of course, leads a multinational coalition that has spent the past year carrying out air strikes against Islamic State-controlled parts of Syria and Iraq. Russia, meanwhile, has suddenly waded deep into the conflict, deploying fighter jets and ground forces to the northwest of the country in an effort to bolster the wobbling regime of Mr. al-Assad.
Mr. Putin suddenly appears to be building a coalition of his own in the Middle East. Russian media reported on Monday that the Kremlin had entered into an intelligence-sharing agreement with Iran and Syria – as well as with the U.S.-trained Iraqi army.
"We think it is an enormous mistake to refuse to co-operate with the Syrian government and its armed forces, who are valiantly fighting terrorism face-to-face," Mr. Putin said in his New York speech, calling for a UN mandate authorizing concerted action against the jihadi organization that controls swaths of both Syria and Iraq. "We should finally acknowledge that no one but President Assad's armed forces and [Kurdish] militias are truly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria."
Mr. Putin said Russia's intervention in Syria was motivated not by any geopolitical agenda, but out of concern that the conflict could spread, particularly as foreign fighters who joined the Islamic State – including some 2,000 Russian nationals – potentially return to their home countries. "We can no longer tolerate the current state of affairs in the world," Mr. Putin said.
He made a pitch for European support, pointing at the wave of refugees that could be returned to Syria if the conflict there were brought to an end. The European Union has joined the United States and Canada in slapping a long list of sanctions on Moscow over last year's annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin's ongoing support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
There was plenty of irony in Mr. Putin lauding the importance of the UN and multilateral action, 18 months after Russia used its veto powers at the UN Security Council to block a resolution condemning its seizure of the Crimean peninsula following a disputed referendum there.
The Russian leader, making his first appearance at the General Assembly since 2005, tried to patch up the hole in his quilt by casting the United States as the agent of chaos in both instances. The Islamic State, he suggested, was the result of catastrophic efforts to spread democracy in the Middle East. Mr. Putin also claimed that Ukraine's crisis was caused by a foreign-orchestrated "military coup" – disguised as a pro-Western revolution – in Kiev.
The United States went unnamed in both instances. But it was clear throughout his speech exactly whom Mr. Putin was talking about. He complained that "a single centre of domination" had emerged following the Cold War, one that frequently ignored the UN's founding principles.
Mr. Putin said the violence in Syria and other parts of the Middle East was a direct result of U.S. support for the pro-democracy uprisings of the Arab Spring. The Islamic State, he added, "didn't come from nowhere."
"Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we got violence, poverty and social disaster – and nobody cares a bit about human rights, including the right to life," Mr. Putin said. "I cannot help asking those who have forced that situation: Do you realize what you have done?"
Mr. Putin's speech came less than an hour after U.S. President Barack Obama spoke from the same podium. Mr. Obama's remarks were sharply critical of both Mr. Putin's foreign and domestic policies – particularly Russia's role in Ukraine – although Mr. Obama also held the door open for negotiations over Syria.
But Mr. Obama, who called Mr. al-Assad "a tyrant," said there could be no return to the situation in Syria before the war.
For U.S., Russia and Iran, defeat of IS just one goal among many others
The Islamic State
Russia's Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama agree: The terrorist Sunni group known as the Islamic State is their No. 1 concern in Syria, where IS forces control significant territory in the north, centre and east of the country. Beyond that, there's little the two men agree on.
Mr. Putin has been deploying armed forces and materiel to Syria (mostly in the Alawite homeland of western Syria) to prop up the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad so that the Syrian army can take the fight to the Islamic State.
Mr. Obama, on the other hand, has been content to attack IS forces from the air and wants nothing to do with the tyrannical Mr. al-Assad. Indeed, Mr. Obama wants the tyrant out so democracy can flourish.
Mr. Putin argues that Mr. al-Assad's regime cannot vacate its offices until a new administration is ready to take over. To leave a vacuum, he told the UN General Assembly on Monday, risks a chaotic and volatile situation such as the one Libya now is facing in which extremists may very well triumph.
The Assad regime
While Mr. Obama might well wish to see the Syrian leader gone, it seems he is softening on just how soon he wants him evicted. Perhaps influenced by Mr. Putin's Libyan analogy, or by several European leaders, including Britain's David Cameron, who now argue it might be helpful for Mr. al-Assad to stay through a transition, the U.S. leader now allows that the dictator need not go immediately.
Mr. Putin told CBS interviewer Charlie Rose last week that "right now" Russia doesn't plan to "participate in any troop operations in the territory of Syria." This leaves quite a lot of wiggle room should he decide to send his soldiers into combat.
The only issue that likely would cause him to do that, however, would be the prospect of the Islamic State gaining a completely free hand, if not complete control, in Syria.
The prospect of some 2,000 victorious Russian-born IS fighters returning to Chechnya and taking the battle to Moscow is more than Mr. Putin is willing to risk. It's better, he believes, to have that battle inside Syria rather than at home.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani shares one thing in common with both Mr. Putin and Mr. Obama: He, too, believes religious terrorism is the greatest threat facing the Middle East and the world.
Of course, the Shia Iranian leader is referring to the Sunni brand of extremism as practised by groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda that also are opposed by the West. However, the United States and many of its allies, including Canada, Saudi Arabia and Israel, also view certain Shia groups such as the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement as terrorists.
Nevertheless, Mr. Rouhani said Iran would be willing to work together with the United States and other parties in "a united front against extremism and violence" in order to bring democracy to Syria.
The nuclear test
The Iranian President's pledge to work for democracy in Syria, however, is conditional on the United States and the other members of the UN Security Council passing a test.
Mr. Rouhani explained that while he is full of praise for the negotiations of the nuclear deal recently concluded between Iran and the Security Council's five permanent members and Germany, the deal also is looked on by Iran as something of a test – to see if the United States and others are sincere in truly implementing what was agreed, namely the lifting of sanctions against Iran.
While U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday told his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif that the United States hoped their two countries could work together to help resolve the crisis in Syria, Mr. Rouhani's chief of staff, Mohammad Nahavandian, said on Sunday that such an arrangement would depend on the United States passing the nuclear test.
"We have to see whether the implementation stage can bring about some level of trust," he told the Al-Monitor news service.