Russia's Putin—Not Sanctions—Could End Syrian Violence

Opposition leader sees signs that Russia is re-thinking its support for the Syrian regime.

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia.

By + More

Mass executions and slain children won't bring U.S. and Western military intervention in Syria, meaning when the fighting there ends largely rests in the hands of a global renegade: Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin and his comrades have become a resurgent thorn in the side of Washington and its allies, blocking action on a list of issues from the bloody Syrian unrest to Iran's nuclear program. But the once-and-again Russian president has something U.S. President Barack Obama, French President Francois Hollande, and their contemporaries lack: Leverage over Syrian President Bashir al-Assad.

Pressing Putin to exert his influence over Assad could be Washington's next move, one former U.S. diplomat says, especially as the White House continues to resist calls to use military force.

"We have been focused on the need to bring about a political transition in Syria sooner rather than later, precisely because the longer this goes on, the longer that Assad and his thugs are allowed to brutally murder the Syrian people, the more likely it becomes a sectarian civil war; the more likely that it spills over Syrian borders; the more likely that it transforms into a proxy war with different players," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Thursday.

Moscow has for decades supported Syria's strong-handed regimes. It has sent billions in investment funds into the Middle Eastern nation for a number of major economic programs and provided Damascus military hardware. The Russians also operate a warm-water port in Tartous, Syria.

[Gallery: Fighting in Syria Continues.]

In short, Syria is one of the last places in the Middle East where Russia exerts ample influence. And since Assad's exit could tamp or terminate its Syrian sway, experts say Putin has more to lose—and to gain—than Obama and Hollande.

"If Russia portends to be a global power—and it does—then Putin has to recognize his responsibilities with regard to Syria," says Edward Djerejian, a former U.S. Ambassador to Syria and the founding director of Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy.

U.S., Western, and regional leaders should step up efforts to convince Putin to end his support of Assad, Djerejian says.

"We should be bringing very frontally to Russia's attention that this bloody conflict in Syria is leading to sectarian warfare and civil war, which will further destabilize a country that is very important in the Levante," says the former ambassador. "Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan would all be effected. Major instability in the Middle East is something that will impact all global powers' interests, including Russia. I don't see any winners in that."

Muna Jondy, president of opposition group United For a Free Syria, says Putin, "clearly has leverage because he provides Assad with weapons."

"Syria is broke enough that it can't buy weapons. It's getting them from its B.F.F., Russia," Jondy says.

Russian officials in recent days have been more critical of Assad and his military. But Moscow remains "categorically against" any military intervention against its close ally, one Russian minister said Thursday, according to reports.

Jondy says there are other pieces of evidence that Moscow might be re-thinking its support for Assad. "There have been claims that Syrian troops have abandon some equipment because they didn't have the parts they needed to repair them," Jondy says. "And Russia decided to not give them the parts."

But Moscow might have done this for reasons other than worries about the reported killing of women and children, she says. "This appears to have been an accounts payable issue, not a humanitarian issue," Jondy says. "The Russians are looking at this now and thinking, 'The regime is going to fall, so why give them these parts and have a big, outstanding bill?'"

The Obama administration on Wednesday stepped up its efforts to squeeze Assad's finances, slapping new sanctions on the Syrian International Islamic Bank. The Treasury Department claims the bank has been a front to circumvent other sanctions and funnel monies to the regime. The new sanctions would keep the Syrian bank from doing transactions in the U.S., while also freezing any of its assets under American jurisdiction.