The Syrian imbroglio – Putin’s cautious reaction to Western bombs

By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

The Western intervention in Syria tested the “new” Vladimir Putin – between his reelection and inauguration. He seems much the same person, preparing for the next stage of political developments while not controlling fully the existing situation. There was not much he could have done to prevent the Western intervention. After the diatribes of president Trump, Russia raised the red flag on various fronts with declarations by a few generals, by the foreign minister and some ambassadors, by a few political figures, and by Putin himself – all making the expected statements, each in their roles.

Having clarified the Russian position, Putin kept discreet personal contacts with the three Western leaders involved (Presidents Trump and Macron, and prime minister May) – and waited. But he stated what is central to his geopolitical vision – that the West has no right to promote itself as the gendarme of the world. He knows that this argument is shared by the leaders of many other countries, including China.

After the Western air and missile raids, there was an obvious feeling of relief in Moscow when it appeared that the scope of the bombings has been limited and that there were zero Russian casualties. Russian air defenses were not needed against Western war planes. In other words, Russia was not obliged to raise the level of action, if only to save face.

On the contrary – and it was another message to the world – Putin appears as the wise man trying to save the world from a fatal escalation initiated by irresponsible Western leaders acting emotionally and without a vision of the future of the whole region. The fact that the West did not wait for the first technical reports by the international inspectors were an additional argument. Moscow is convinced, and is not the only one, that those limited strikes were not so much a ‘signal’ to Assad as a display of the lack of political relevance.

Immediately after the strikes, the three Western leaders, and their allies, claimed “there is no military solution in Syria” and “it is time for diplomacy”. This is exactly what the Russian been saying since 2011. But, in the meantime, the number of countries and non-state actors on the ground multiplied; the geopolitical dimension is now predominant; and the level of confidence between Moscow and the West is at its lowest. Both sides are convinced that the other prefers to continue to let Syrians be killed rather than accept a solution they did not propose themselves.

With calls for negotiations as a new mantra, the West insists on a return to Geneva, in the hope to sideline the Astana process involving Iran, Turkey and, Russia – all regional powers. Which demonstrates how the would-be negotiators are essentially concerned with their own interests much more than those of Syrians.

Immediate consequences

In any case, negotiations, in Geneva or anywhere else, will be hampered by the immediate consequences of the Western operation.

First, because it has put Turkey in an even more uncomfortable position between the regional powers and the West – but still resolute to prevent the establishment of any Kurdish free zone at its borders.

Secondly, because it shows the division of the West behind the façade of unity. There is something more than just discord about the use of military force and the credibility of the “intelligence sources” provided to the West from a country as controlled as Syria. The final communique of the EU Council’s meeting of 16 April was finalised before the meeting itself and included the usual appeals to “stay united in front of Russia”.

Third, despite tottering on about Western unity, the US and Russia are primarily interested in bilateral agreements and their own interests. The Europeans cannot be sure that the Trump administration is politically on their side.

Fourth, the Europeans, and not only UK, are cautious about the individual policy of president Macron who wants to use the circumstances to promote himself as a go-between and to impose the return of France to the ‘Levant’.

Fifth, each member of the trio is using the “need to send a signal to presidents Assad and Putin” for internal purposes – Teresa May to discourage criticism of her confusion over Brexit and domestic policies, as well as to attention the contradictions in the ‘Skripals’ story; Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron to mark a rupture between their decisiveness and the dithering of their predecessors, presidents Obama and Hollande.

Finally, the bombing is a bad opening for relaunching negotiations, because they will immediately hit the same wall over again: the status of Assad. The Syrian president is the military winner on the ground and wants to retake as quickly as possible the last enclaves still under control by rebels and jihadists. The West has merely demonstrated its lack of appetite over strikes against strategic objectives that might hit foreigners and too many Syrian civilians.

Assad knows, too, that the bombings have tied Russia even closer to his regime, even if the Russians deplore his faith in simply a military solution. Even Putin’s personal interventions failed to influence some diplomatic steps by Assad at crucial moments, and one can guess that some people in the Kremlin regret that the time for ‘palace revolution’ is over. After the Western intervention, Putin has no choice but to support Assad – if only to safeguard the image of a president who, unlike some Western leaders, does not led down his allies when they are attacked, even if he does not like them personally.

This lead to the central question of nearly all recent events: how to send a “signal” if people at both ends who do not speak the same language.

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