When the Soviet Union retreated from Afghanistan in 1988-89, Putin was a local KGB spy-master in East Germany. He was a few short years from entering political life as the final tanks rolled across the bridge, driven out by the muhajideen. Some of these sworn rebels were from the Arab world rather than Afghanis, as in Osama bin Laden himself. And Afghanistan is overwhelmingly Sunni as well. Is Putin – who seems to have a deep-seated drive to resurrect Soviet influence – determined to somehow redeem Russia in Syria? And how will his nacent coalition of Iranian Quds Forces, al-Assad’s regime, and Russian military personnel and weapons influence the current civil war?

ISIL is Sunni. The Putin gang allies are Shia. Assad is an alawite – a Shia minority sect in a majority Sunni nation. This major Sunni-Shia division sits like a fatal fault line under the current bloodshed and displacement in Syria and its neighbors. And America’s role in Syria – made even more excruciatingly difficult by Obama’s indecision – is a choice between untrustworthy partners, ambitious rivals, and fanatical enemies. Russia has displaced America in Syria. Is there any other way to put it? It may be that Syria proves to be a curse upon Putin’s ambitions, but the Russian President does not have to worry about Congressional approval or polling to the extent that any U.S. Chief executive does. Putin is autocratic and astonishingly popular in his home country. They have their czar and he will be as unscrupulous and ruthless as necessary in order to stake his claim to the Middle East, in a way not even the Soviets did.

Yes, there are political, secular goals at work. And what better strategy than to use the Sunni-Shia divide to gain greater control? But to state that Sunni-Shia conflicts are merely geo-political under the guise of conflicting branches of belief is to be nostalgic for the Cold War era. The era of conservative regimes like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan backed by the West against revolutionary Middle Eastern regimes backed by the Soviets has long since given way to atavistic and increasingly primitive sects using atrocity as a strategy as much as a tactic. The Iranian revolution opened the gates of hell for much of the Middle East and they remain wide open, three decades later and counting.

What, in this hell, can Obama do? To who, in this burning landscape, can he turn to? Not as towards an unwelcome partner whom one cannot trust, but as to an ally? The answer is clear. The tactics will have to be worked out quickly and carefully – an impossible balance. Who knows more about the Middle East than any other first-world democracy? More than America itself? It is time for Obama to repair the relationship with Israel. He may be incapable of doing so. But it must be done.

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