Putin’s Syrian Show: A Distraction From Troubles Closer to Home

Moscow’s military campaign in Syria is not likely to restore the country to Assad, but it is a way to blunt Russia’s own painful loss in Ukraine.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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A Russian warship fires cruise missile at Syria on October 7. Russia, which released the footage, claimed it was targeting Islamic State positions.
A Russian warship fires cruise missile at Syria on October 7. Russia, which released the footage, claimed it was targeting Islamic State positions. Credit: AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Two years after domestic opposition forced U.S. President Barack Obama to shelve his plans to attack Syrian targets with cruise missiles, Russian President Vladimir Putin carried out the plan on Wednesday. But instead of targeting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime in response to his use of chemical weapons against civilians, the missiles Russia fired from the Caspian Sea were aimed at rebel groups threatening Assad.

A week after Russian warplanes began their airstrikes from the Latakia base where they were deployed last month, Putin continues to throw everything he has at Syria. The campaign looks like a purposeful display of the revitalized Russian defense industries, which in recent years have benefitted from renewed investment after nearly two decades of neglect following the fall of the Soviet Union.

The Russian defense ministry is providing reams of details, allowing crews from Kremlin–funded television channels to film freely. The arms displayed include Sukhoi 31 interceptor aircraft and Sukhoi 34 bombers which were added to the Russian air force only two years ago; advanced electronic warfare devices, and Caliber cruise missiles (the Russian answer to the Tomahawk missiles the Americans had planned to fire) fired from the flagship frigate Dagestan, the Russian navy’s newest missile boat. All have been displayed to impress on the Russian audience at home that they are once again citizens of a great power.

But at issue is more than just technology. Russia’s aircraft are not just hitting pre-chosen targets but are giving air support to Assad’s army, which is trying to recapture territories it lost recently in Hama. Along with Russian troops there are presumably Russian liaisons and advisers, and there was at least one unconfirmed report of a Russian death on Tuesday.

The flight path of the cruise missiles, through the airspace of Iran and Iraq, highlights the alliances Russia has with those states. There have also been at least three penetrations of Turkish airspace by Russian combat jets which led to the scrambling of Turkish F-16s. While there was no exchange of fire, only diplomatic protests, the message is clear. Russia is exploiting its presence in Syria to challenge NATO’s southern border.

No U.S. response

The United States, the supposed leader of NATO, has yet to formulate a response to the Russian moves. There is, however, recognition of the fact that despite Russia’s declaration that it is targeting the Islamic State, nearly all its airstrikes have been directed at other rebel groups, including oness that are getting aid directly from the United States. On Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Russia’s strategy was “tragically flawed,” but said the United States was prepared to coordinate on technical details to prevent collisions with its aircraft, which are continuing to attack Islamic State targets.

Despite Russia’s PR campaign, the air power that has been deployed until now will not be enough to shift the momentum to Assad and restore to him the more than 80 percent of Syrian territory that he’s lost. For this ground forces will be needed, but that makes Russian deaths more likely and that’s a chance Putin apparently doesn’t want to take, despite the offer by his protégé, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, to send “world-class” fighters to Syria.

Putin is apparently prepared to make do with a lot less than that: to stabilize the front lines and assure Assad’s limited rule in central Damascus, in the Alawite enclave along the Mediterranean Sea (wherein lies the port of Tartus, home to a Russian naval facility), and along the crucial supply corridor on the Lebanese border.

In any case, his main goal has nothing to do with Syria at all. Over the last week, the Kremlin’s propaganda brigades, television channels, websites and thousands of “trolls” on social media are talking only about Syria; even the Russian TV weather forecasts reported the favorable climate conditions for bombing in Idlib province. But all this serves to hide a different agenda, one much closer to the Russians’ heart.

Despite Russia’s huge investment over the past year-and-a-half, and hundreds if not thousands of people killed, the separatists Moscow is supporting have not succeeded in strengthening their hold on the eastern part of Ukraine and opening a land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula. Russia’s economy has paid a heavy price in Western sanctions, and at this point it looks as if Putin understands that he will have to reach a cease-fire with Ukraine. The Syrian campaign is meant to distract the Russian public from the failure in Ukraine and prove that Moscow can continue to be a worthy rival of Washington.

Meanwhile, while tensions between Russia and NATO are at their height, it seems that coordination between Russia and Israel is going smoothly. Wednesday was the second day of meetings between the two countries’ coordinating teams. No details were available from those talks but sources involved in bilateral relations said the Kremlin has been conveying soothing messages to Israel, including disseminating to Israel’s Russian-language media quotes from the security assurances Putin gave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu two weeks ago.

Despite the initial panic that seized the Israeli defense establishment when Russia began deploying in Syria, those who are accustomed to dealing with Moscow says the Russians have great admiration for Israel’s military capabilities and that “the last thing Putin is looking for now is to start up with Israel.”

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