09/11/2013 10:55 am ET Updated Nov 11, 2013

The Troika: Putin, Khamenei and Assad

If for no other reason, we should be grateful to the Russians for shining light on two of the recent mysteries surrounding Syria, and American policy, and for reminding us that you can't understand the current war by looking at Syria alone. At a minimum, you've got to watch the Russians and the Iranians.

The Russian gambit on Syria was quite clearly not a sudden move provoked by Secretary Kerry's remark that if Assad gave up his chemical weapons, it might render military action unnecessary. Nor, for that matter, should we believe that the Secretary's remark was entirely ad-libbed. American, Russian and Iranian officials -- including Kerry, President Obama, President Putin, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif and President Rohani -- have been talking and exchanging messages about Syria for some time, and we can safely assume that the basic outlines of Putin's proposal were discussed. Top Iranian officials -- including the deputy foreign minister and a long-time backchannel to Moscow from Supreme Leader Khamenei -- have been in the Kremlin over the last several days.

In retrospect, this helps explain President Obama's abrupt and unexpected announcement that he was going to ask for Congressional approval of military action in Syria. Forget all the deep thinking about the president's motives, which ranged from reacting to public opinion polls, to entreaties from his aides, and even a reconsideration of the Constitutional proprieties. It was no doubt designed to buy time to work on some of the details, and for the Russians and Iranians to explain the new rules to Bashar al Assad. Secretary Kerry's remarks reflected that process, so he is probably innocent of committing a "gaffe."

Even as the president spoke last night, the Russians were shipping additional arms to the Syrian regime, presumably to make up for the impending loss of its chemical weapons, which were themselves largely provided by the Russians, starting in the 1990s.

And in the last week, the Iranians sent a new Revolutionary Guards unit to Damascus, to aid in the fighting.

All of which shows that it makes little sense to talk about Syria by itself, for Assad is decidedly not an independent actor; his survival depends on Iran and Russia. Without Iranian fighters from the Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force and Hezbollah, he probably would have fallen from power. With them, and with Russian weapons for his troops, he may yet prevail.

The Putin-Khamenei-Assad alliance has proven durable because it rests on both ideological and strategic objectives, and their main enemy is the United States. Very important Russian and Iranian officials have said over and over that they will go all-out on behalf of their Syrian ally. We should all take them seriously, and no one should believe that Putin and Khamenei are doing Osama a favor with this latest scheme.

The Russians and Iranians have every good reason to fight fiercely for Assad. His strategic location provides Putin with access to the warm waters leading to the Gulf and the Med, and he gives Khamenei his only Arab ally. Syria provides the Russians and Iranians a crucial link in their global network (a regularly scheduled flight has long operated between Tehran and Caracas, via Damascus). During the American-led war in Iraq, most foreign terrorists were trained in Syria and infiltrated onto the battlefield across Iraq's western border.

Should Assad be removed, the Russians and Iranians would lose a lot. Nobody should be surprised that Putin and Khamenei are doing all they can to save him.

This sort of situation -- an Arab ally threatened by American military power -- is not new for the Russians. They faced a similar crisis with Saddam Hussein in the runup to the 2003 invasion, and they conducted an active scramble very similar to what we see today: blocking Security Council resolutions, proposing "political solutions," and the like. Putin doesn't want a replay, and he's got a good chance of success; Bush had overwhelming Congressional support in 2002-3, while Obama has little reason to believe he would win a similar vote today.

Plus, the Iranians are there to help the Kremlin, unlike 2003, when Khamenei had no interest in fighting on behalf of Saddam, the killer of hundreds of thousands of Iranians.

Putin and Khamenei know each other well, for, although there is little trust between the two, the Russians work closely with the Islamic Republic of Iran on many things. The nuclear reactor at Bushehr is a Russian product, lots of Russian military equipment (think air defense, torpedoes and submarines) is in Iranian hands, and they sometimes work particularly closely on intelligence matters. Above all, they are of a single mind on the United States: they both want America out of the Middle East.

Putin is by far the dominant partner, because his power would not be threatened if Assad were to fall, while Khamenei's would. So Putin finds himself in an enviable position: he's calling the shots, posturing as a great peacemaker, while the Iranians provide the cannon fodder for the war and Assad does what he's told. Even today, his birthday.

Michael Ledeen is Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a former Special Adviser to the Secretary of State, and the author of more than 30 books, most recently "Accomplice to Evil" and "Virgil's Golden Egg and Other Neapolitan Miracles."