Russia might help maintain open channels between a post-Al Assad government and former Alawite army and intelligence officers and other minority representatives.
Russian role in Syria will not end when the regime falls
Russian President Vladimir Putin called last week for an end to the carnage in Syria, and strongly advocated negotiations between the parties. This sounded hypocritical from a leader whose country has contributed to the carnage by supplying weapons to President Bashar Al Assad's regime. Perhaps sensing the apparent duplicity, Mr Putin called on Monday for an end to arms supplies to all sides in Syria.
His contradictions notwithstanding, the Russian president's comments point to another reality, one reinforced by fears that the fall of Mr Al Assad would not bring peace, because the minority Alawites would see the new Syria as an existential threat and continue the fight. This reality is that, regardless of Moscow's behaviour until now in Syria, the Russians will be essential in helping pave the way towards a peaceful endgame.
Why Russia has sided with Mr Al Assad is a matter of debate. Some argue that Mr Putin sought to prevent western countries, especially the United States, from doing in Syria what they had done in Libya. Another view is that the Russians feared that a triumph by Sunni Islamists against Mr Al Assad would provoke similar yearnings in Russia's Muslim republics, among Islamists hostile to Moscow.
That could be true. But nothing seems likely to save Mr Al Assad now, as his forces lose control over large swathes of territory in Syria's north and south. And if the president goes, then the nature of Russian involvement in Syria will change. From being a defender of the status quo, Russia may become a guarantor of minority groups, above all the Alawites.
Few are better placed than the Russians to address the fears of the Alawites. This may not be to the liking of an Islamist-dominated post-war Syrian government, but ultimately that government's priority will be to stabilise the country, and that could make dealing with Russia unavoidable. Addressing the apprehensions of minorities will be a primary responsibility of any post-Al-Assad leadership.
The United States is unlikely to help much in this regard. The Americans are disengaging from the Middle East, and their ties to the Alawites and other minorities are negligible. The Europeans don't have the sway to take the lead on minorities, even if they contribute to a general settlement. Russia is mistrusted by the Syrian opposition, but it can contribute to normalisation by reassuring minorities. Therefore its influence may be more significant than we imagine.
Where Russia might make a difference is in maintaining open channels between a post-Al Assad government and former Alawite army and intelligence officers and other minority representatives, who could potentially lead resistance to the new authorities. And if Mr Al Assad still holds power in some Alawite enclave on the coast, only Russia would have the credibility and contacts to push him in directions that facilitate an overall resolution of the conflict.
A reason why western states may see benefit in granting this latitude to Russia is that they would prefer Russia over Iran to fill a post-war vacuum. While both countries are bolstering the Syrian regime, their motives are different. Russia seeks to avoid the blowback of an Islamist-led uprising in Syria; Iran needs to protect its assets in the Levant. Where the Russians aim to avert chaos, the Iranians may see in chaos an opportunity to fill the vacuum to their advantage.
One Iranian priority is to carry on supplying weapons to Hizbollah via Syria, if needed. That may be why Tehran has organised and trained Syrian minority militias. This takes us back to 1982, when Iran established and armed Lebanese Shiite groups during the Israeli invasion, to have leverage in the post-conflict phase. By securing lines of communication between Syria's coast and the majority Shiite Baalbeck-Hermel district in Lebanon, Tehran could guarantee arms deliveries to Hizbollah if Lebanon were besieged in a war with Israel.
Russia, which has a good relationship with Israel, has no such ambitions. On the contrary, from Israel's perspective, Russian influence in a post-Assad Syria may be welcome, given Israeli fears that a void might lead to attacks in the Golan Heights.
Any political formula that helps resolve the Syrian conflict is one that Israel cannot help but endorse, particularly at a time when the United States has adopted an increasingly minimalist approach to the region.
And the Russians may have another, commercial, incentive in mediating in Syria. Recently, Russia's Rosneft partnered with ExxonMobil to bid jointly on a tender to develop Lebanon's offshore gas and oil reserves.
Lebanon's stability is tied in to that of Syria, and Syria's offshore gas and oil sector will, once peace is achieved, become a lucrative magnet for Russian investment. Gone are the days when Russia's principal focus was on weapons exports to the Arab world. Today a stake in Syria's and Lebanon's economies may be far more effective in extending Russian influence in the region.
Nor will this necessarily lead to friction between Russia and the United States, despite their disagreement over Syria. Ultimately, Washington, too, is looking for a negotiated outcome, and worries that a military solution will lead only to Syria's fragmentation.
With this in mind, it may be time for the US and Russia to begin informal consultations over a post-Assad Syria, so that they see eye to eye on any Russian intercession.
The protection of minorities concerns both countries, even as they prepare to engage with the majority.
Syrians are no doubt justified in blaming Russia for many of their woes today. From the start, Mr Putin has been on the wrong side of the Syrian revolt. But Russia may well prove to be indispensable to a Syrian peace, and the time to start thinking about this eventuality is now.
Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut.
On Twitter @BeirutCalling