THE BLOG
12/18/2014 09:08 am ET Updated Feb 17, 2015

The Russian Crisis and the Syria Connection

President's Obama announcement on Cuba is indicative of three important elements; first, while the president is handicapped by the existence of a Republican-dominated Congress, he is definitely capable of darling foreign policy initiatives. Second, the president is not so passive in the field of foreign policy as his adversaries, both in and out of the US, tend to portray him. Third, Cuba has its own good reasons to search for an historic reconciliation with the US, but there is a strong case to be made that timing, at least of the new situation, was influenced by the sense that Vladimir Putin, the one great backer of the Castro regime, is proving to be a paper tiger, an unreliable patron.

It may be speculative, probably premature, but not unlikely to visualize the shock waves felt in Damascus, where Bashar Assad may have a very good (in his case, bad) reason to feel that things can change also with regard to his ongoing civil war, and the continuing Russian support to his regime.

In fact, I take the risk of gambling that the Syrian dictator is a worried man today. The map of international relations is changing; the Russians and Iranians, his two chief backers, are getting impoverished by the day, and the US and Saudi Arabia seem to have the initiative. The dictator is engaged in a no-win situation, as he is losing strongholds, main roads, entire areas to the Sunni Opposition. Actually, his biggest loss are young Alawites, and if the figure of 120,000 dead Alawites in the last three and a half years of conflict is correct, then he is bound to end up the final loser, and with him his community and their communal allies. Time to reconsider? Time to change course? Maybe, though the dictator has proved until now that he posses both will and resilience, which may defy the views of many, including this blogger....

Today a Syrian delegation, headed by a cousin of the dictator, has arrived in Cairo in order to discuss the Syrian situation with a view to find a peaceful solution. It should come as no surprise that Egypt hosts such a delegation, as the Egyptian military is the enemy of the Muslim Brotherhood who supported the Syrian Sunni opposition, which is also supported by one Tayyip Erdoghan, the sworn enemy of the new Egyptian regime. Yet the Sunni rebels (not IS and their allies) are supported by Saudi Arabia, a close ally of General Al-Sisi. Confused? Well, welcome to the Middle East, but the most important of all that is the Saudi connection. The Saudis and the Egyptians can have a major say about Syria, and it has to include the inevitable removal of Bashar Assad -- so much for any peace plan. No one in their right mind really believes that after all that happened, Assad will stay. Israel quietly, Jordan, not so quietly, can be on board, but it should get an American green light. In fact, there already are some unverified reports that King Abdallah of Jordan was approached by the Americans with a view to start planning the final removal of Assad.

The Obama Administration makes no bones of its opposition to the Assad regime, and until recently seemed to be reserved about the ability to bring down the dictator. Moreover, the Russia factor may be given a second thought now. Is the fate of Bashar Assad really on top of Putin's list of priorities? I, for one, doubt it. Putin recently stated that the Crimea was Russia's Mount Temple, no word about the sanctity of Syria and Bashar Assad, and it was not coincidental, as Assad
is really not that important.

Now is the time, therefore, to start a new American initiative with regards to Syria, but even today, the advice should be to do it in cooperation with Russia. In the past, Putin was at the helm, and Obama seemed to be weak, and now it may be completely different. Still, Putin may not like to look TOO weak and watch passively the end of Assad. Henceforth, he could now play a positive role, and the chances are not distant at all.

Removing Assad may mean a safe refuge for him and his immediate family, possibly a pardon for alleged war crimes and immunity from prosecution in the Hague, and Russia could be ready to be the refuge country.There should be an international force stationed in large parts of Syria, designed primarily to prevent large-scale sectarian bloodshed, a force including also Russians, and permission granted to Russia to maintain its naval base in Tartus, at least for a limited period of time. Saving face is an important element of international relations, and Putin is in bad shape now, so the idea is to give him enough incentives not to act as a wounded animal.

All this is conditional on a decisive defeat of IS in Eastern Syria, something which requires an American-led international coalition ready to commit forces for a ground war. So many times the Middle East seems so ripe for a positive change, just for the hopes to crumble like a house of cards. The current juncture may prove to be one of these crossroads, but maybe not. It is worth the try.