PHOTO: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin

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For those watching closely, the signal for Russia’s first airstrikes came in a statement on Wednesday morning by Kremlin spokesman Sergei Ivanov, just after the upper house of the Parliament authorized military operations:

To observe tinternational law, one of two conditions has to be met — either a UN Security Council resolution or a request by a country, on the territory of which an airstrike is delivered, about military assistance.

In this respect, I want to inform you that the President of the Syrian Arab Republic has addressed the leadership of our country with a request of military assistance.

Within hours, witnesses were reporting that Russian jet fighters were bombing parts of Hama and Homs Provinces in western Syria. Activists said scores of people — almost all civilians — had been killed, disseminating videos and photographs of slain or injured children.

Putin called the airstrikes a “pre-emptive” operation against the Islamic State — the official reason for Moscow’s military escalation inside Syria. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said “rumors that the targets of these strikes were not IS positions were groundless”. The Defense Ministry, reporting 20 sorties on eight sites, released video of a supposed attack on an Islamic State headquarters.

However, even before the Russian leaders set out their line, witnesses and analysts had confirmed — through videos and geolocation as well as testimony — the real story of Moscow’s gamble: all but one of the targets were areas held by the opposition to Syria’s Assad regime, rather than by the Islamic State’s militants.

Of course, Putin and Lavrov probably knew that their lies would soon be exposed. It was part of their high-stakes bet: through brazen propaganda and political maneuvers as well as airstrikes, Russia can save President Assad from a likely downfall.

Putin’s High-Stakes Gamble

Only six weeks ago, Russia as well as its ally Assad was in a precarious position. Working with Iran, it had hoped to convince foreign powers to attend an international conference confirming Assad’s stay in power during a political “transition”. The US had appeared receptive, with Secretary of State John Kerry discussing the possibility with Lavrov in early August. But the Saudi Foreign Minister torpedoed the initiative, humiliating Lavrov at a press conference after their meeting in Moscow, when he said Assad must leave before any negotiations could develop.

The Saudi rejection compounded Assad’s plight. Since the start of 2015, his weakened army — lacking manpower and isolated in parts of Syria — had suffered a series of major defeats. Rebels had taken much of northwest Syria, including almost all of Idlib Province, so the opposition could establish an alternative government. Rebel blocs had also advanced across the south, along the Jordanian border, while Kurdish militia and the Islamic State held most of the northeast of the country.

Combined with the deteriorating Syrian economy, the shifting military position raised the prospect of President Assad’s departure, if not the collapse of the regime. The Syrian air force prevented a final defeat on the battlefield, but even this could not prevent the rebel capture of military bases this summer.

Assessing the situation, a cautious leader might have pulled back from the expense in finances, equipment, and prestige to back Assad. But Vladimir Putin is not a caution man: when confronted with weakness — his own or that of others — he prefers a posture of strength through aggressive diplomatic and military moves.

So Russia laid a different path to relaunch the effort for international talks. From mid-August, Moscow built up its military position in western Syria. It expanded an airbase in Latakia Province, bringing in 34 jet fighters, about two dozen attack and transport helicopters, a strategic airlifter, and drones. Russia’s ships brought in advanced battlefield armored vehicles and weapons. Several hundred additional troops were deployed as “advisors” to Assad’s militia, not only in Latakia and Tartous Provinces on the Mediterranean but also near frontlines in Hama and Homs Provinces.

Moscow’s initial denials of an escalation — like Wednesday’s deceptions — were merely part of a show. The message to the US and its partners: accept the political talks, with Assad retaining power during the negotiations, or face our military operations.

The ploy was mostly successful. Russia made the campaign palatable with the pretext that its forces were being positioned against the Islamic State, allowing the US to replace its opposition with the acceptance of discussions for an “anti-IS” coalition. Britain and Germany said that Assad could stay for months, paving the way for Secretary of State Kerry to say that the Syrian leader did not have to depart on “Day 1 or Month 1” of a transition.

However, the Saudis would not budge. Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir repeated on Tuesday, “There is no future for Assad in Syria…One option is a political process where there would be a transitional council. The other option is a military option, which also would end with the removal of Bashar al-Assad from power.”

So Russia, which had carried out drone surveillance last week to scout targets, played another card on Wednesday with its airstrikes. Putin, who had proposed a grand “anti-Hitler” coalition in his UN speech on Monday, effectively said: Join us or stand back as we bomb and prop up the Syrian military.

Initially, US officials such as Kerry and Defense Secretary Ashton complained that Washington had been treated rudely, with only one hour’s notice of the Russian operations, and that it appeared the Islamic State had not been targeted. But by late Wednesday afternoon, the objections were easing: after a meeting with Lavrov, Kerry put the emphasis on “deconflicting” to prevent an accidental US-Russian clash, rather than Moscow’s retreat from the attacks on the rebels — and the civilians who were the main casualties of the assault.

But Risks Remain for Vladimir and Bashar

The initial wave of success for Putin’s gamble does not guarantee a long-term payoff, however. Displaying military strength does not remove weaknesses, both inside Syria and in Russia.

Moscow’s warplanes can help the Syrian military hold its essential defense line from the Mediterranean to Homs to Damascus. However, just as the Syrian Air Force has not been able to help ground forces reclaim lost territory, Russia’s jet fighters cannot wage the frontline battle against rebels.

With no prospect of a revitalized Syrian Army, Putin has only two unpalatable options: put Russian troops on the battlefield or accept the de facto partition of Syria, with rebels continued to build their position in northwest and southern Syria.

And unless there is an immediate breakthrough, the Russian President will have to face a continuing toll on the Russian economy. Moscow is already stretched by a series of problems which include difficulties with investment and production, pressure on the ruble, falling prices for its oil exports, and international sanctions. With recession predicted, the Kremlin has pursued a series of anti-crisis measures.

Putin has defied the economic difficulties — or possibly tried to divert from them — through Russia’s aggressive approach to Ukraine. But now he is adding yet another expenditure with the escalation in Syria. While that may be welcomed by many Russians, with the Orthodox Church blessing the airstrikes, attitudes could change if there is no quick resolution and costs mount.

If Saudi Arabia finally gives way and joins the “Assad Can Stay for Now” chorus of the US and the Europeans, the Russian leader probably wins his bet. But if not, it is likely that he will face the risk of more hands being dealt in Syria’s ongoing crisis.

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