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Does Russia Hold the Key to the Syrian Crisis?

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As the international community looks for a way out of the current Syrian imbroglio, they key to solving the crisis may be found in Moscow, Syria's oldest ally and possibly the one major nation to still hold sway with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

"The Russians can be the solution to this problem, but they must first see the resolve of the U.S. and its allies that there is no turning back and the Assad regime must go," Edward Gabriel, a former U.S. ambassador who has advised the Obama administration on the issue of Syria, traveled to Syria extensively, and met with Assad on at least five occasions, told me. "I believe a tipping point has been reached in the conflict in Syria, with no ability for the current regime to remain there under any circumstance."

That the U.S. and its allies are convinced that it's time for a regime change in Syria is one thing, but how can they in turn convince the Russians, who might be the only ones in a position to convince the regime in Damascus?

One argument is that as violence continues to grow in Syria, so, too, do calls for action from a number of sources, among them neoconservatives in Washington and elsewhere, calling for a repetition of the Libyan scenario to be applied to Syria. The danger here is that Syria is not Libya, and while the outcome of the Libyan campaign was predictable for NATO forces, the same cannot be said about Syria. U.S. and/or NATO involvement in Syria will unleash anti-American forces in the region, with a repetition of Iraq rather than Libya. Needless to say, the outcome would be disastrous for all. Can the United States and NATO afford another prolonged conflict? Unlikely. The ingredients in Syria are far more complex, with religious, political, and ethnic undertones that were not present in the Libyan crisis.

Gabriel says, "The U.S. and its European and Arab allies must tighten sanctions and increase support for the rebels, and make it more difficult for the Russians to continue to support the Assad regime." That may have worked in the past, but the situation on the ground today is drastically different. Sanctions alone may be moot, as they have been in place since the U.S. Senate passed into law the Syria Accountability Act of 2003. Syria's economy, after a rebound a few years ago (in spite of the sanctions), is now operating on fumes after 17 months of internal fighting, and with some 250,000 refugees seeking safety in neighboring countries, and that's not counting the numbers of internally displaced people. With chunks of the country under rebel control, including the country's main commercial center, Aleppo, sanctions are unlikely to be the tool that will tip the balance of power.

It would be more effective to convince the Russians that what is needed is to give them something that will make them feel more comfortable with a change of regime in Syria. To that one should ask the following question: Why is Moscow still supporting President Assad when the rest of the international community has turned its back on him? For Moscow, Syria offers the Russians a year-round warm water port for its Mediterranean fleet in Tartus. For Russia this is a matter of national security, as without access to the convenience of that port, Russia's underbelly is exposed, and its warships are forced to rely on its Black Sea ports, which require that its ships transit through the Dardanelles, in Turkey, thus exposing them to NATO control. Moscow has long been preoccupied with the fear that in the event of a real crisis, Russia's ships would not be able to cross through the Bosphorus. Russia's other major naval ports in the Baltics tend to freeze over during the long, cold, winter months, and Vladivostok, on the Pacific, is far too distant from the Mediterranean.

Rather than trying to strong-arm Russia into seeing things the way Washington does, possibly a more pragmatic approach would be for the Americans to "guarantee" that Moscow will continue to have access to the Syrian ports regardless of who takes over leadership in Damascus. As Ambassador Gabriel pointed out, Russia may well hold the key to solving the Syrian crisis, but the United States and its allies need to reassure Moscow that the door will not close shut behind it.

Claude Salhani is a journalist, political analyst specializing in conflict resolution, and author of several books. His latest book is Islam Without a Veil. He tweets @claudeslhani.