Russian President Vladimir Putin is a playmaker who plans surprises. It’s at the KGB that he learnt the virtue of hiding intentions. He also learnt the importance of misleading as a weapon to win battles.
There’s no exaggeration when we say that western leaders did not immediately know how to read Putin’s eyes well. Putin waited and when he gathered his strength, he began striking. Barack Obama’s eight years in power were his golden opportunity.
Putin was hoping that Trump’s era will be the era of recognizing his victories from Crimea to Syria and all the way through Ukraine. Some analysts spoke about a big deal between the two men. Meanwhile, many said Trump’s victory in the presidential elections carried the fingerprints of the Kremlin master.
The Russian president seemed comfortable when the winds of realism blew in Washington and other capitals. The priority is to destroying ISIS while toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is neither a worry nor a concern. The latter is a matter that can be left for the Syrians and negotiations to finalize. During his meetings, Putin talked about a gradual plan for a solution that keeps Assad in power until 2021.
Trump said he is not like Obama, and one must therefore get his calculations right. Trump was waiting for an opportunity to confirm what he repeatedly said as a candidate and as a president. When intelligence apparatuses informed him that Assad forces used Sarin gas in Khan Sheikhoun, he seized the opportunity and ordered strikes against the Syrian al-Shayrat air base.
It is early to assert that Putin’s only option is to deepen the alliance with Iran and engage in a long-term confrontation in the Middle East. This is a costly option, which the Russian economy cannot affordGhassan Charbel
The strike achieved three goals as it targeted the Assad regime and Putin’s image and also sent a message to the American public. It shed light again on the fact that Assad uses chemical weapons against his own people. America also restored its capability to make decisions in the Syrian arena and this revived the alliance, which rejects the Assad regime and its practices. The idea of safe zones was thus revived.
The strike also targeted the Russian narrative about the Syrian war, particularly regarding the use of chemical weapons. Russia’s representative at the UN Security Council has failed to convince people of Moscow’s narrative. Russia was thus portrayed as a party that covers violent practices, which remind us of World War II woes. One can also deduce that the Iranian narrative has been targeted, as the danger of ISIS is not enough to cover for the developments in Khan Sheikhoun and other areas.
The strike also targeted an American party which believed Trump owed Putin and that he will submit to a Russian Syria under the pretext of preventing the establishment of an Iranian Syria.
It’s early to rush and conclude that the American strike represents a turn in terms of the Syrian crisis. However, we cannot underestimate what happened. The accusation used to justify this strike makes it difficult for the Trump administration to back down from its previous position. The same applies to those who supported the strike.
The chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun confused observers. Why was the town targeted using these prohibited weapons when the regime had achieved some progress, at least in terms of postponing its fate and its president’s fate? There are several questions. Since its situation has become better, did the regime want to benefit from this to fatally strike the opposition?
Is it true that the regime lacks the sufficient number of troops on the ground and now depends on other tools, despite their danger, to achieve victories? Was attacking Khan Sheikhoun a test for Trump? Does the American strike serve the party which calls for resuming the war and which considers anything other than that as a losing settlement? Does Iran benefit now that the possibility of a Russian-American agreement on Syria has decreased?
Putin will not let the American strike pass without a response but the options are limited. In 2013, he succeeded in tricking Obama. He gave him the Syrian chemical arsenal and practically guaranteed the safety of the regime and kept the American army away from the Syrian arena. Obama was thrilled with this gift as he thought Syria was a trap and did not view it as an opportunity.
It’s clear that the American strike poisoned relations between Washington and Moscow. America’s restoration of its prestige restores the axis in support of it. Any American decision to arm the moderate opposition will worry Putin and it warns that – for Russia – Syria will no longer be an opportunity but a trap which consequences are unknown.
Trump’s strike somehow isolated the Syrian regime again and struck Russia’s image. It is early to assert that Putin’s only option is to deepen the alliance with Iran and engage in a long-term confrontation in the Middle East. This is a costly option, which the Russian economy cannot afford.
During the past weeks, the option of a Russian Syria took the lead. It’s clear that Putin is pulling the strings. He exhausted the moderate opposition more than he exhausted ISIS and al-Nusra Front. Many ended up agreeing that a Russian Syria is an acceptable solution. Then the Khan Sheikhoun massacre happened and it was followed by the American strike. The entire scene thus changed.
Your weak opponent is your best ally. Putin most probably misses the phase of Obama’s term. Obama adopted the policy of evading traps and this turned crises into opportunities for his rivals. Putin must reshuffle his cards because Trump also loves to assume the role of the playmaker and to plan surprises.
What’s painful is that all these horrible games are being played on Arab fields. It’s become ordinary for Arabs to live between two massacres. Shortly after recovering from the atrocities of the Khan Sheikhoun massacre, two bloody blasts targeted churches in Tanta and Alexandria. Oh my God.
This article was first published in the Al Sharq al-Awsat on April 10, 2017.
Ghassan Charbel is the Editor-in-Chief of London-based Al-Hayat newspaper.