Analysis

Putin’s Bluff Is Finally Being Called and Russia Is Running Out of Options in Syria

After proving powerless to prevent the airstrikes on the Assad regime, how can Putin restore deterrence?

Russian President Vladimir Putin crosses himself as he attends the Easter service in the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, Russia, early Sunday, April 8, 2018.
Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

Saturday morning’s combined attack by the United States, Great Britain and France on the Assad regime’s chemical warfare bases in Syria may have been, as U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis described it, “a one-time shot,” but it also proved an important point.

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Russia does not have the military capabilities necessary to prevent the U.S. and its allies from destroying targets that are ostensibly under its protection in Syria.

This should not come as a surprise. The United States Armed Forces – and, to a much smaller extent, those of Britain and France – have long been built to work on a global scale, with the capability to quickly deploy land, sea and air battle forces, backed up by electronic warfare aircraft and aerial tankers.

>> Trump chose not to threaten Assad's rule. The question is what Putin will do | Amos Harel ■ Attack gives instant gratification but is much ado about nothing | Chemi Shalev ■ Putin may limit Israel's operations in Syria in retaliation for U.S.-led strikes | Zvi Bar'el ■ Strikes can't hide fact the world has abandoned the Syrian people | Anshel Pfeffer

Russia’s army is still built around defensive-minded Soviet doctrines and is designed to protect the homeland, at the most fighting small local battles on its borders. The Russian force currently based in Syria consists of a couple of dozen bombers and attack helicopters, which can pulverize civilians in rebel-held enclaves but lack the sufficient equipment, or experience, to fight an adversary with cutting-edge capabilities.

Russian and Syrian sources boasted that 70 percent of the missiles fired at regime targets had been shot down by the air defense systems Russia supplied to the regime. Just as they made a similar claim the previous week after the attack on the T4 air base, attributed to Israel. The Pentagon denied these claims and the Syrians have produced no evidence to back them up. They are unlikely to be true.

A satellite image showing the Barzah Research and Development Center after being struck by U.S. and coalition operations in Damascus, Syria, April 14, 2018
\ HANDOUT/ REUTERS

Russia, of course, remains a formidable military power, but that is largely when it is fighting on its own borders. This was the second time in just over two months that its limitations in fighting abroad were exposed. In February, at least 200 Russian “mercenaries” were reported killed in U.S. airstrikes, called in when the Russian force took part in an attack on the U.S.-backed, mainly Kurdish, Syrian Democratic Forces.

That may have been a one-time shot as well, since U.S. President Donald Trump intends to end the U.S. presence in northeast Syria in support of the SDF soon. But the fact that his forces, and those of his Syrian and Iranian allies, are exposed will not have been lost on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Until now, Putin has had one major advantage in Syria: His was the only country, besides Iran, that was prepared to deploy its own significant contingent. In the vacuum left by then-President Barack Obama’s decision not to get involved in the Syrian war, beyond a belated air campaign against the Islamic State, Russia’s intervention was decisive.

But now the bubble in which Russia has been operating has been punctured again and again. When it was only Israel doing so, in pinpoint attacks on Hezbollah and Iranian targets (according to foreign sources), it was one thing. Israel rarely acknowledges its attacks and has an efficient “deconfliction” process with the Russian headquarters at the Khmeimim air base.

Russia’s appearance of omnipotence in the Syrian arena has been shattered. Appearances of power count for a lot in this region.

For now at least, the U.S.-led alliance doesn’t seem to be planning any further attacks on the regime beyond that one-off retaliation to the April 7 Douma chemical weapons attack – Trump after all tweeted “Mission Accomplished!” on Saturday. But Putin will feel he needs to somehow restore Russia’s deterrence.

His options are limited. Russia doesn’t have a military option to restore its deterrence in Syria. Its forces there are insufficient to take on any of the other nations who have operated, and may operate again, in Syria. Working together – and probably also individually – the United States, Britain and France, as well as Israel and Turkey, can all deploy larger and more capable forces to the region much faster than Russia can.

Another option already being exercised is the cyber one. Even the most casual Twitter user following foreign affairs will have noticed the “bots” out in force in recent days, simultaneously claiming that there was no chemical attack in Douma and a chemical attack had been carried out by Western-supported rebels. The Pentagon assessed “a 2,000-percent increase in Russian trolls” within 24 hours.

But after all we’ve learned in the last two years, the effectiveness of trolls – whether fake ones manufactured in Russia, or real far-left and far-right mouthpieces who can be relied upon to parrot the Kremlin’s line – is no longer as devastating as it was during the U.S. presidential election.

A more ominous cyberthreat was contained in the warning issued Monday by the U.S. and British governments of a concerted campaign by Russian hackers to take control of internet routers used by government and critical infrastructure networks. If successful, such a hacking operation could have devastating results, but if linked to Russia – and the warning spoke of “high confidence” that it is – that could lead to a serious escalation of tensions between the West and Russia. But would it make future Western intervention in Syria less likely?

Another possibility is a concerted military push inside Syria against the rebel-held areas near the Turkish border, perhaps with some form of coordination with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with the aim of provoking another major flow of refugees through Turkey into Europe. Russian Foreign Minster Sergey Lavrov warned last week of such an outcome to the West’s “adventures.”

While this wouldn’t directly threaten the United States, Britain or France, a similar exodus of Syrian refugees through Turkey, and across the Aegean into Greece, to the million refugees who arrived in Europe in 2016 would seriously test the European Union’s members and have wider shock waves. But would Erdogan, who supported Friday’s airstrikes, partner Putin in such a move? The EU has so far succeeded in buying him off and keeping the Aegean floodgates closed. What can Putin offer him to break the deal to keep the Syrian refugees out of Europe?

Two and a half years after Russia deployed its aircraft to Syria, Putin has yet to achieve the sort of leverage he was hoping for. His control of Syria and ostensible partnership with the West in fighting ISIS there hasn’t translated into concessions on sanctions or carte blanche to act in Ukraine. The opposite has happened, with enhanced sanctions.

Another attempt by Russia to exert pressure on the West, by singling out Britain for an assassination attempt on former spy Sergei Skripal using a nerve agent, resulted in a united Western response: the mass expulsion of Russian diplomats. And now the United States, Britain and France have got together to attack the Assad regime.

Putin’s bluff is finally being called. After years of inaction under Obama and despite Trump’s obvious reluctance, the United States and its allies are now challenging him and he’s running out of options.