There can be no peace in Syria without Russia. Alongside Iran, Russia has been the most loyal and steadfast supporter of the Assad regime. No American or other initiative will succeed if the Russian bear is ignored or snubbed. All other options have failed.
For Russia, the Syrian conflict is not a faraway fight. Putin is no shy liberal – he can see the connection between his troubled regions in the Caucuses, the fighting power of the martial Chechens, and the strength of ISIS being a training ground for jihadis who wish to attack Russia, or support separatists. Homegrown terrorism linked to the Middle East is not just a Western concern. Russia has the same fears.
The Russian relationship with the Syrian government goes back to the 1950s and the Cold War. Russia trained the Syrian military top brass, and many Russian government experts on the Arab world learned their trade in Damascus. To this day, thousands of Russians live in Syria – many are women who married Syrian men while they trained in Moscow. Russia's last naval base outside the former Soviet Union is off the Syrian coast. Syria's religious minorities, Orthodox Christians, see Russia as a protector of their safety and interests.
US President Obama showed awareness of this depth of the Russian-Syrian connection when he agreed to military-to-military talks between America and Russia. US Secretary of State John Kerry has been dispatched to facilitate the diplomatic support for this military engagement.
With warmer ties between Iran and the United States, it is an opportune moment to spend some of the new political capital that the Obama administration has accumulated in previously hostile quarters. But Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime alone cannot bring stability to Syria. Their guns falling silent will not stop the bloodletting.
America's traditional allies — Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf monarchs that have supported the rebels — cannot be ignored. Turkey is home now to nearly two million Syrians, and over 600,000 Syrians have registered in Jordan. The Saudis will not stop support for Assad's opposition until their proxies have some power and influence in Syria to counter the rise of Iran and Shia domination in neighbouring Iraq.
In the pursuit of peace and stability in Syria; the destruction of ISIS; the ending of the refugee flows and rebuilding a once proud country, the West must cooperate with Russia fully. Our differences over Ukraine, sanctions, Russia's expansionism, and Russian anti-Americanism cannot blur our vision and allow for the growth of extremism and terrorism: It will happen not just in Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Lebanon, but also in our own cities in the West and in Russia.
It is time to work with Russia respectfully and sincerely to stop war in the killing fields of Syria.