Kremlin's Syria gamble appears riskier than ever
Aircraft at the Syrian Shayrat Air Base are seen in this still image taken from undated handout video.  Photo: Russian Defense Ministry handout via Reuters
Aircraft at the Syrian Shayrat Air Base are seen in this still image taken from undated handout video. Photo: Russian Defense Ministry handout via Reuters
Analysis

Kremlin’s Syria gamble appears riskier than ever

Moscow's war of words against US 'aggression' over cruise missile attack has been dialed back as prospect of clash over Middle East policies grows

Moscow, April 9, 2017 4:27 PM (UTC+8)

Following the US attack on Syria, Russia waged war of words as the Kremlin officials strongly condemned American air strikes.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has denounced the US President Donald Trump for his decision to authorize missile strikes on Syria as an act of “aggression” and violation of international law “under a far-fetched pretext.”

On Facebook, Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev claimed the relationship with Washington was about to be “completely ruined” and argued that the two nations suddenly found themselves just one step away from combat.

Aside from strong rhetoric, the Kremlin responded with some ominous moves. On April 7, Russia announced a decision to cut a hotline intended to prevent midair incidents over Syria. The Russian Navy frigate Admiral Grigorovich armed with cruise missiles headed to the Mediterranean in a clear show of force.

In their coverage of the US strikes in Syria, the initial tone and message of mainstream Russian news channels was defiance. Reports said Syrian jets had taken off from the bombed air field again.

The Russian media argued US missile strikes proved to be ineffective. The US military fired 59 Tomahawk missiles from the USS Porter and USS Ross warships in the Mediterranean Sea at the al-Shayran air base near the western city of Homs. Russian news channels claimed less than half actually hit the intended targets.

The US administration claimed Russia bore some responsibility for the alleged chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. But on April 7, the Russian media claimed the US warships started preparations for missile strikes before the alleged chemical attack, apparently implying that the incident was staged by US-backed Syrian rebels to provide a “pretext” for “aggression.”

However, the next day Russian news channels had toned down the criticism of the US. In an April 8 phone call, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that the missile strikes against the Syrian regime undermined the fight against terrorism and helped extremists. But there was no more mention of US “aggression.”

In the meantime, Russia’s strong condemnation of American air strikes was only shared by North Korea. On April 8, Pyongyang said the US missile strikes against Syria were and “act of aggression,” according to the official KCNA news agency.

Incidentally, President Trump announced the attack from his Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago, where he was meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping. According to Secretary Tillerson, Xi told Trump he understood the US reaction. There are “a thousand reasons to make the China-US relationship work, and no reason to break it,” Xi told Trump, according to Xinhua.

The American missile strikes against Syria that undermined Russian-American relations were carried on when Xi and Trump were engaged in friendly talks at Mar-a-Lago. So the Kremlin had few reasons to expect any strong Chinese support for Russia’s policies in Syria as now the Kremlin appears to be jettisoning plans to cooperate with the Trump administration so as to end the Syrian war.

It was a dicey game for Moscow to become directly involved in the Middle East in defiance of the west’s policies in the region. In its first military engagement outside the former Soviet Union since the war in Afghanistan, Russia launched air strikes against Syrian rebels from September 30, 2015.

Then Moscow claimed that the end of its Syrian venture was nearing. On March 15, 2016, Putin ordered a partial pullout of the Russian military from Syria, arguing his troops had largely achieved their goals. The Kremlin insisted that the Syrian armed forces gained a fundamental turnaround in the fight against terrorists with the assistance of the Russian military. Russian officials and media described the developments as “Mission Accomplished.” These claims now appear to have been premature wishful thinking.

The Syrian game now looks even more risky for Moscow. As Russia suspended the agreement with the US to share information about air operations over Syria, risks of accidental conflicts have increased significantly. In remains to be seen whether Russia and the US can stop Syrian tensions from spiraling out of control.

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