There seems to have been a distinct shift in the Russian position on the Syrian crisis. Last Friday, its President, Vladimir Putin, said that there could be elections to solve the crisis, and that there was no guarantee that there would be a place for current President Bashar Al-Assad afterwards. The significance of this statement was in Bashars firmest supporter expressing the idea of a Bashar-less future for Syria, something for which the USA and its local surrogates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have long both supported publicly, but which Russia has always vetoed.

However, there is a catch. The USA had originally wanted an election to find an alternative to Assad, but it swiftly realized two things, one specific to Syria, another applicable to the rest of the Arab world. Specific to Syria, there is the lack of replacement, which is because the Assads, especially the father, were harsh on all possible sources of opposition. Without a viable replacement, the USA and Russia might well find themselves out of control of the process. Applicable to Syria based on experiences in the rest of the Arab world where the Arab Spring led to elections, is the possibility of Islamic forces gaining control. In both Egypt and Tunisia, the elections held there led to the victory of the Ikhwanal Muslimeen and the Harkat Annahda respectively. The Ikhwan were only dislodged by a military coup, while Annahda lost power after it lost elections.

One reason for these victories was that these Islamic parties were the nearest their countries had to an opposition; if the government went, it was not just Islamists who turned to them, but also those who opposed the government, but had no real political vehicle. This need not mean that supporters are Islamists. Egypt, in particular, has seen a coup carried out against the Ikhwan by the military, even though it was headed by someone who had been raised to that position by the Ikhwans Pesident, Mumammad Morsi.

In Syria, on the other hand, the Assads, particularly the father, had been brutally suppressive of all dissent. This does not seem to have been enough, but it has meant that there is no opposition which could take over if elected. In Syria, there would be infection from Iraq. The two countries both occupy an area with political connections. Both together went through Baathist revolutions, in Syria headed by Hafez Al-Assad, in Iraq by Saddam Hussain. However, both reverted to their religious support groups, even though both not particularly religious men; Al-Assad to fellow Alawites and Saddam to fellow Sunnis. One result was that when Saddam fell to the USA, Sunnis found themselves deprived in both countries.

Syria had been a French colony after World War I, having fallen to its share under the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, under which the UK got Palestine, Iraq and Jordan. It is worth noting that Egypt and Syria were both long ruled by air force commanders (Hosni Mubarak and Hafez Al-Assad) who wanted their sons to follow them. Mubarak was ousted first, but Hafez succeeded, with son Bashar taking over, and facing the current revolt.

It might be noted that Egypt and Syria have been linked since Pharaonic times, with the ruler of Egypt virtually forced to invade Syria as well. If the Egyptian ruler tries to mind his business, he is likely to face invasion from that route. It should not be forgotten that the Hittites, who (not certainly) had an origin in modern Turkey, invaded through Syria. Jumping about 2000 years and a number of invasions, it should be noted that before Salahuddin Ayubi wiped out the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, he first became ruler of Egypt, and it is from there that he engaged in reducing not just Israel, but also Syria, to his rule. It is thus of great significance that Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel and has diplomatic relations with it. On the other hand, Syria has not even signed a peace treaty. But for the Sykes-Picot agreement, Syria would probably have included Israel, for it covers the old Ottoman wilaya of Palestine. Lebanon too was part of Syria until recent historic times, and though it became independent in 1943, Syria always took a deep, even overpowering interest in its affairs.

Lebanon has twofold significance. On the one hand, in the shape of the Hizbulllah, it provides one of Bashars sources of fighters, along with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the Alawites (he has virtually no support from the Sunnis). Second, as part of the name of the Daesh, which is rightfully ISIL: Islamic State of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Though ISIL has not shown much of an interest in Lebanon so far, its very name says it is on its agenda. Though it has established a presence in the Subcontinent, it is also as if it is the heir of the Baath Party, in having a presence in Syria and Iraq.

Russia came in to support the Assad regime in Syria from the air, but has now pulled out. It is a little surprising that Putin has not just called for elections, but proposed an interim government with Cabinet slots for the opposition, in government which would preside over the elections. Though the Russians have far from abandoned Bashar, that would be a formula for an ouster of Bashar that would lead to Islamists coming in, at least temporarily.

The Islamists who might come in would be scary because they would belong to no party. Another problem for the USA and Russia would be that the Syrian military is too fragmented to execute the kind of takeover that Al-Sisi did in Egypt. (As Al-Sisis example showed, a military man is a good counterweight to any person or party with political influence; in Syria, there seems to be no one). Another difference is that in Egypt, an important background issue was the relationship with Israel. For example, in the time it held office, the Morsi government did not break off diplomatic relations with Israel. There are no such relations with Syria for a future government to preserve or end.

It should not be ignored that one option, that floated by the Saudis, has not been explored, that of the 29-country coalition it has set up sending forces into Syria. That the name of Pakistani COAS Gen Raheel Sharif has been mentioned as possible commander of the force is perhaps wishful thinking by those interested in finding him a job after retirement, but it does indicate that the force would comprise mostly Pakistani troops, thus needing a Pakistani commander.

However, Pakistani participation would be crossing a red line, of Pakistan not using armed force against any Arab people. The present COAS has shown, in the aftermath of the US drone attack that killed Taliban chief Mulla Akhtar Mansour, that he tolerates such crossings. However, that is a line Pakistan would do well to avoid. The suffering of the Syrian people is great enough not to need any addition from Pakistan, especially when the purposes being served are against the will of not just all Arabs, but all Muslims.