Putin plays trump card in high-stakes Syria standoff

After over two years of isolation and vilification as the last significant friend of Bashar al-Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears for now to have played a trump card in the Syrian crisis with a plan for the regime to hand over chemical weapons.

If it works, the plan could offer the West a way out of threatened military strikes as retribution for a chemical attack blamed on the regime and restore Russia's image and regional influence which have been battered throughout the Arab Spring.

Yet Putin will be acutely aware of the risks of the plan backfiring, in particular if the expressions of readiness to implement the plan by Damascus turn out to be an illusion.

Seizing the initiative to promote Russia's position in front of a worldwide audience, Putin took the unusual step Thursday of publishing an op-ed in The New York Times "to speak directly to the American people and their political leaders".

Putin recalled the alliance between the Soviet Union and United States in World War II that defeated Nazi Germany and paved the way for the creation of the United Nations Security Council where the victorious Allies still have veto power.

He painted a near-apocalyptic picture of the price of military action against Syria, warning of a "new wave of terrorism" and collapse of the whole global diplomatic system based on the UN.

"We are not protecting the Syrian government but international law," he said.

One of the hallmarks of Putin's domination of Russia has been an insistence that the country remains a Great Power and he took issue with comments by Obama that American policy is "what makes us exceptional".

"It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation," Putin spat back.

--- 'The idea was already in the air' ---

Analysts said that the Russian proposal succeeded in striking a chord in the West as it cleverly plays on the reluctance for military action among Western governments, legislatures and societies haunted by the 2003 Iraq war.

The Russian proposal, in the short term, suits everyone as it does not "demand the impossible" said Andrei Baklitsky of the Russian Centre for Policy Studies.

"If things work out with Syria, Russia will have very elegantly returned itself as an important player in the Middle East," he told AFP.

"If Syria starts to hide the weapons and so forth then Russia's reputation and its position will be at stake. It's a bold step on Russia's part but it can still win."

The circumstances of the appearance of a plan which might prompt the biggest concession from the Syrian regime in the two-and-a-half year conflict remain enigmatic but appear a combination of long-term thinking and quick reaction.

Moscow announced the plan on Monday, apparently seizing on remarks by US Secretary of State John Kerry that a swift weapons handover could avert strikes, in a rare burst of quicksilver pragmatism from the staid world of Russian diplomacy.

But the idea has also not come from nowhere, with President Barack Obama and the Kremlin confirming that such a suggestion was floated at talks between the US president and Putin at the G20 in Russia last week.

"The idea itself was already in the air, Kerry talked about it, Russia had also given it thought and there was a powerful mutual impulse and everyone seized on it," said Alexander Filonik, of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Even if Russia manages to avert military strikes, it remains to be seen what effect the proposal will have on Russia's backing for Damascus and the conflict which has claimed over 100,000 lives.

The Syria-Russia alliance dates back to the close ties between the Soviet Union and Bashar al-Assad's father Hafez and many analysts have seen the Kremlin stance on Syria as above all a powerplay to preserve what is left of its waning post-USSR influence.

Putin on Friday is due to meet the new Iranian President Hassan Rowhani, reportedly ready with an offer to sell the arch US foe S-300 missile systems, in a possible warning to the United States of the consequences if it goes ahead with strikes.