Putin’s Woes Mount as He Gambles on Iran in Syria, Foregoes “Big Bargain” with Trump

Another major US strike in Syria is indicated by the proliferation of media reports about the Assad regime’s repeated use of chlorine gas against Syrian civilians. If launched in the coming days, this strike would come less than a year after the massive cruise missile strike the Trump administration ordered on a Syrian air base on April 7, 2017 to punish Damascus for a previous chemical massacre.

DEBKA Weekly 790 of Feb. 23 carried extensive coverage of the US defense line manned by 2.500 Marines in Syria, which is firmly blocking Russian-backed Syrian and pro-Iranian forces from pushing east across the Euphrates up to the Iraqi border and holding the Turkish army back from overrunning Kurdish lands.

That line may not be the final limit of American military intervention in Syria. Western media were full of reports this week about Bashar Assad’s chemical atrocity in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta. They also played up North Korea’s complicity in Assad’s misdeeds by supplying Damascus with illicit materials and equipment for manufacturing chemical weapons.

A Trump administration order for another big punitive strike against the Assad regime in the first half of March, would mark the second instance in one month of proactive US – and Israeli – military action against Russia’s Syrian and Iranian allies – first on Feb. 7, in a battle in which US forces left multiple Russian casualties; then, on Feb. 10, when Israel struck Syrian and Iranian targets.

This March timeline would catch President Vladimir Putin at a most inconvenient moment. With his “big bargain” with Washington consigned to the dustbin, he is just days away from the March 18 election. Although his return for a third term is virtually in the bag, Putin had been hoping to face the Russian voter after winning a successful military campaign in Syria and fruitful peace diplomacy. Instead, he is beset with a looming US military strike against his ally and haunted by the memory of himself on boasting prematurely on Dec. 11, 2017- with Bashar Assad standing beside him – that the Syrian war was over thanks to Russia’s victorious prowess.

This episode recalls how President George W. Bush stood on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier on May 1, 2003 and declared the Iraq war had ended in a US victory. Fifteen years later, that war is still not over.

There are further upsets in store for the Russian president:

  • Deeply disappointed in the Russian army’s recent performance in Syria, it is rumored in Moscow that Putin is considering replacing Col. Gen. Alexander Zhuraviev as his commander in Syria and restoring his predecessor Col. Gen. Sergey Surovikin, current head of Russian Aerospace forces.
  • He must face up not only to the heavy death toll of Russian troops (variously estimated in dozens or scores) in the Deir ez-Zour battle with US forces on Feb. 7, but also to the failure of some of Russia’s most advanced weapons systems on Feb. 10 when fired from Syrian batteries against Israel’s air raiders. The Buk M1E/SA-17 and the Pantsyr S1/SA-22 missed their targets. These failures may be attributed to the ineptness of the Syrian crews, but the fact remains that Syria’s air defense weapons positions function in full coordination with the Russian air defense command at the Khmeimim air base near Latakia. So far, the S-300 and S-400 missile systems have not been tried in the Syria arena, but Putin must be struggling with a dilemma. What if they too prove to be letdowns?
  • His three allies in Syria are giving Putin throbbing headaches. Bashar Assad is sly and savage and needs watching. But Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is the most unmanageable. The Russians have belatedly concluded that they should never have given him the green light for invading the north Syrian enclave of Afrin in late January to crush the Kurds. They had calculated that by prohibiting his use of Turkish air power, they would keep him on a leash. They were wrong. Erdogan has spread his wings beyond Afrin into fresh terrain, Idlib and eastern Aleppo, where he is busy mobilizing local radical militias as proxies for fighting Turkey’s battles. So far he has rounded up 30 militias, all of them Sunni extremists, which are either linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, way-out Salafi movements and Al Qaeda – or even former affiliates of ISIS.
  • As for the Iranian Al Qods chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani, he is an exceptionally hard nut to crack. The program Putin set himself in 2017 was to lead Syria from war to peace in a process that culminated in the exit of all foreign armies from the country, including Iran and Hizballah. He soon found he was at cross-purposes with his ally in Tehran. The Iranians were sticking to their plan of digging deep roots into Syria. In the event, the Russian president was forced to reconcile to the unfeasibility of ridding Syria of Iran’s military presence. For now, Russia is giving Tehran’s military expansion a helping hand, thus widening the gap between Moscow and Washington.

In view of Putin’s switch to the Iranian side of the Syrian conflict, US National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster was prompted to declare on Feb. 17 that now is the time for more forceful action to halt Iran’s development of proxy armies in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq. It was obvious that this task was now left to the US and its coalition.

On Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Feb. 27, the top US military commander for US forces in the Middle East said Iraq was “increasing” the number and “quality” of the ballistic missiles it was deploying to the region. He was answering a question from Rep Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) at a House Armed Services Committee meeting, about the reports that Iran had moved more missiles into Syria.

By now, it seems obvious that there is no point in waiting any longer for Moscow and Washington to strike another “big bargain” that might provide, for instance, for Russia to give way in Ukraine versus an American concession in Syria.

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