How to solve the mess in Syria -- without going to war

We are treated to daily pictures of Syrian troops massacring women and children in the most brutal fashion, while some world powers wring their hands and others turn a blind eye. There is a compelling humanitarian case to stop the slaughter. But in so doing, there is also a rare geopolitical opportunity to rearrange the pieces on the Middle East chessboard and take Syria out of the pro-Iranian camp.

Flipping Syria isn’t a new idea. The NeoCons advocate regime change Bush style – arm the rebels and send in the Marines, despite it not having worked so well in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The liberal left clings to the hope that a little more diplomacy might convince the Bashir al-Assad to a change.

The former is impractical and the latter is naïve; and they’re both unrealistic. After months of slaughter, we still don’t know who the rebels are, and there is no “rebel army.” Unlike Libya, there have been few defections from the Syria’s armed forces that could build a rebel army.

Sending them arms and special operations forces might allow them to eventually build a viable military opposition, but not anytime soon. And it’s hard to see how another round of talks will convince a man who’s decided it’s kill or be killed to lay down his arms.

But there is another possibility -- using hardheaded diplomacy and go straight to the country that really matters and cut a deal.

That’s what my old boss Henry Kissinger did in the 1970’s when he made a secret trip to our decades-long enemy, China, to open relations. That’s what he did again after the 1973 Arab Israeli War with a round of Middle East shuttle diplomacy that ended with Egypt switching from the Soviet to the American orbit.

Kissinger was the consummate negotiator and realized that the only agreements that countries kept are those that used leverage and offered something for everyone. And that’s the problem with both the NeoCon and Liberal-Left proposals.

The leverage point with Syria isn’t in Damascus. It’s in Moscow.

Kissinger edged Russia out of the Middle East in the 1970s; forty years later Syria remains their only ally in the region.

Russia sees any attempts to topple the Syrian regime as a threat to that relationship, and they cling to it, even as the Assad’s goons go house to house in Houma butchering women and children. But the Russians are not immune to world opinion, and the once and future czar of Russia, Vladimir Putin, itches for a little respect. And therein lies the opportunity.

We could go to the Russians, and instead of shaming them into dropping support for Assad, offer them something for it. Encourage them to take the lead – and ultimately the credit -- in an international effort to push out the bloody Assad regime.

What’s in it for Russia?

By helping navigate the Assads out and someone else in, Russia’s position of primary in Syria would not change. They could maintain their economic relationship with Syria, continue selling them arms, keep their Mediterranean port of Tartous, while at the same time gaining the respect of the world. Who knows -- Putin might even get his own Nobel Peace Prize for preventing a disastrous civil war that could spread to Syria’s neighbors and threaten to ignite the entire region.

What’s in it for a new, post-Assad Syrian regime? They get to hit the restart button. They will avoid a bloody, destructive, and prolonged civil war. Iran’s economic assistance, which is likely to dwindle anyway once the Iran oil sanctions kick in, will be replaced by Sunni, American and Western largesse.

What’s in it for the Assads? Maybe, just maybe, they can keep their heads and retire to a vacation spot on the Black Sea. Once the Russians settle on a successor, Assad will realize his days are numbered, and look for a way out. If not, the Russians have shown a great talent for knowing how to get rid of leaders who have overstayed their welcome.

What’s in in for us?

In return for American and Western support of Russian diplomacy, we must insist the new Syrian government sever its relationship with the current regime in Iran. Granted Russia comes out with a stronger position in the Middle East, and those who believe in US-Russia zero sum game won’t be happy. But the grim reality is the United States has no leverage over Syria, and has no appetite for another Middle East war.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no friend of Russia. I’m a Cold Warrior, bred on the notion that the Russians were at the heart of the evil empire.

But I’m also a pragmatist and right now the greatest military threat to the United States isn’t an ascendant Russia but a nuclear Iran. Not only would it set off a nuclear arms race in the most unstable part of the world, but also allow an ascendant nuclear Iran to control the area from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. That would put Iranian hands around the chokepoint of the world’s exported oil, and in essence give them a major role in controlling the world’s economy. Do you really want the savagely anti-American Iranian regime to control the price of gasoline at the tank?

That’s why the Obama administration's plea to the Russians to step it up only solves part of the problem. US support must be conditional upon any new Syrian regime’s severing close ties with Iran.

The Obama administration has gotten the raw end of the deal with Russia before when they gave up the missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic as a goodwill gesture which Russia then failed to reciprocate. They must not make the same mistake again. They must insist that America is conditional on Syria making a clean break with Iran.

It’s a long shot, but so were the opening to China and Middle East shuttle diplomacy. And, given that nothing else is working, it’s a shot worth taking. The question is whether the Obama administration has the strategic vision and diplomatic skills to pull it off.

Kathleen Troia "KT" McFarland held national security posts in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan Administrations. She is FOX News National Security Analyst.