By Striking Syria, Putin Tests Russia's Diplomatic Boundaries

The Russian president's aggressive stance is a cover; he doesn't want a full scale conflict with the West, but is gradually testing American patience.

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Putin chairs a meeting with members of the government at the Kremlin. May 20, 2015.
Putin chairs a meeting with members of the government at the Kremlin. May 20, 2015. Credit: Reuters
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Less than 24 hours after U.S. President Barack Obama ordered the Pentagon to “open lines” to the Russian military on deconfliction between the two nations’ air forces, acting on the “clarity” reached in his meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin on Monday night at the United Nations in New York, a 3-star Russian general delivered a terse message to a U.S. defense attaché in Baghdad.

The deconfliction process - in which two military forces operating in the same area establish protocols on how not to get in each other’s way - between the Russians and the Americans hadn't even begun. And yet, as Russian warplanes were about to begin bombing three provinces in central and northern Syria, the Russian general said the Americans were to evacuate any forces they may have in those areas within one hour.

Israel, who's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached a similar deconfliction agreement with Putin ten days ago at their meeting in Moscow, received a phone call before the bombings (Israel’s National Security Council head Yossi Cohen was notified ahead of the attack).

Putin obviously wasn't about to wait. 

It took minutes Wednesday morning for Putin to table a motion in the Russian Federation Council authorizing the use of Russian forces abroad, get it approved, and order the first wave of bombings. On the way he even had time to obtain a blessing from the pliant Russian Orthodox Church for the “holy war against terrorism.”

The fact that, until now, Syrian reports indicate that Russia's planes bombed other rebel groups (including at least one group being supplied by the U.S.) and civilians - not ISIS like they claim - surprises no one.

Putin admitted in his CBS interview over the weekend that his forces were sent to Syria to prop up the flailing regime of President Bashar Assad. Assad’s army doesn’t fight ISIS. They fight more moderate rebel groups currently threatening Assad's strongholds around Damascus, the corridor to the Lebanese border, and the Allawite coastal enclave, where the Russian forces are now based. And of course Assad principally targets the civilians in rebel areas.

A view of Russian fighter jets and helicopters at a military base in the government-controlled coastal Syrian city of Latakia. Credit: AFP

Few expected Russia to pursue a different strategy, though that won’t affect the Kremlin’s propaganda channel labeling every target Russia bombs in Syria as ISIS label, just as they label the Ukrainian forces facing the separatists “neo-Nazis.”

As it is, the U.S.-led coalition of Western and Arab countries which has been bombing ISIS for a year now has barely dented the spread of the Caliphate. Even if the Russian Air-Force were to truly join them, the results wouldn't be much better.

Five nations have carried out military strikes in Syria since the beginning of the week. American and French planes have attacked ISIS targets. Syria and Russian aircrafts bombed Syrian civilians and other rebel groups. Israel on Sunday night launched missiles at Syrian army positions in the Golan, in retaliation to mortar shells which fell on the Israeli side of the border. Over the last year no less than thirteen nations have bombed Syria, and for some reason it’s still being called a civil war.

Russia is the last one to join the fray but for now seems to be the first to achieve its objectives – in Tartous it fortified the warm-water port, a strategic obsession for the Russians since the time of the Czarist Empire, and it has made clear that no one in the international community will force its ally Assad to relinquish power without Moscow’s agreement.

Putin’s aggressive stance is a cover. He does not want a full-on confrontation with the West; he lacks the necessary financial resources and knows that the moment body-bags start to return from Syria, his popularity at home will plummet.

But from a position of weakness he is taking advantage of inaction of the Obama administration and is gradually testing America’s patience. This morning’s strike is another test of the boundaries. So far Obama has hesitated to act against the Assad regime, forcing even the rebels being trained by the U.S. to fight only against ISIS. No-one so far has stood in Putin’s way and he is wagering that another bombing is not about to change that.

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