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The Old Way or the Clever Way: What Will Putin Do With Syria?

With civil war tearing Syria apart, there are two ways Russian President Vladimir Putin can deal with the issue : the old way and the clever way.

The old way would be to maintain the status quo, support Assad against the wishes of much of the Syrian people, siding with the ruling minority against the majority, lumping all dissidents – FSA, Islamic State, Nusra – in one grouping, branding them terrorists, and trying to eliminate them.

The old way entails cooperation with Hizbullah (a terrorist organization) and Iran. This will further feed a Shiite/Sunni conflict, which no one wants. Besides, the upshot is that Syria would be occupied and occupation has a cost, the struggle will continue and Sunnis would be drawn to the conflict in increasing numbers. Syria will never be stable and it will be a thorn in Russian’s back for a long time.

It is unlikely that Russia has ventured into Syria to stir a hornets’ nest. Russia wants a stable Syria in order to serve its own interests. This won’t happen if Russia is aligned with Iran and the Alawites as civil strife will continue. Russia wants to bring the oil exporting countries as well as Sunnis in and around Russia to their side. This won’t happen with Iran in the mix.

When Russia decides to align itself with the Syrian majority, they would have committed combatants on their side, helping in cleaning Syria from extremists and foreign contingents who have no place in Syria. While this maybe a 180° shift in behavior and policy, swimming with the current is better than swimming against it.

Putin should not repeat the mistake of Afghanistan – siding with the Kabul government – and should not emulate what he has done in his own backyard. When one is working outside his sphere of influence, one must choose strong joint venture partners- much as in business. The partner one chooses is the one that brings most to the table.

To add to that, Russia and Iran will have conflicts of interest in Syria for certain. Evidence of this has already popped up in the news. And, for Iran to stay in the mix, it would have to discredit a major avowed policy – the liberation of Palestine cannot be thought of with Russia as playmate. This may not play well in Iran which has purportedly championed the Palestinian cause – and other “causes” all over the Arab World – draining its resources at the expense of the well being of its mostly liberal populace. So, aside from not being a solid partner, Iran may have internal trouble and so will Hizbullah because of this sea change turnabout.

So, if that is the old way of dealing with the situation, what is the clever way. Well, the clever way is for Russia to dominate the coast and protect the minorities from reprisals, to get what they want from Assad – gas concessions, base/s, precluding a Qatari pipeline – then sideline him, to eliminate the extremists of all shapes and forms, to make peace with the Syrian majority and to install a government representing the majority that will be in debt to Russia for a long, long time.

There are of course other advantages of siding with the majority, one is a stable Syria and grateful Arab and Muslim countries that would move into the Russian orbit. Another, would be as correcting historical wrongs against Muslims inside Russia and bordering it. Furthermore, Russia, in league with friendly oil exporting Arab countries, would have a powerful clout on oil prices and will enjoy increased and possibly preferential trades with those wealthy economics.

Siding with the majority presents Russia with immeasurable political and economic benefits, correcting historical grievances, and gaining dominance in this vital part of the world. The moment is there to be seized. As William Shakespeare once said: We must take the moment when it serves, or lose our venture!

Photo by Global Panorama, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license