In July of 1944, the USSR and Syria established the diplomatic ties.
In February of 1946, the Soviets signed an agreement supporting the Syrian independence from French Mandate.

In 2005 Bashar al-Assad visited Moscow owing the host country over $13.5 billion dollars. Assad and Putin signed a "Joint declaration of friendship and cooperation". Russia agreed to write off almost three quarters of the outstanding Syrian debt.

In 2011 & 2012, Russia used its veto power in UN Security Council against potential sanctions aimed at the Assad regime. They also vetoed any talk regarding UN sponsored military intervention in Syria.

A barrel bomb, used by Assad regime, refers to a large container packed with oil, gasoline, nails, chemichals and chunks of steel that are thrown out of a helicopter or a plane. 



Putin's Middle East Gumble

There is a new power broker in the Middle East and his name is Vladimir Putin. He has no problem with bullying the locals and outsiders equally and makes no apologies for bombing anybody he perceives to be a threat to the survival of Bashar al-Assad regime. Putin fits perfectly into the scene where cruelty and ruthlessness are looked upon with respect. He was able to earn a reputation of the tough guy in the region where Islamic State routinely makes videos of mass executions for propaganda purposes and where the Syrian army indiscriminately drops barrel bombs on its own people.

Putin is probably the last person you would want to influence the already severely troubled region. Unfortunately when the Syrian civil war ensued in 2011, the U.S. and its European allies tried their best to avoid getting involved in any significant way into what they perceived a quagmire leaving the region practically unsupervised.

    Russian President Putin At Bilateral Meeting Focused on Syria March 2016, U.S. Dept of State

In the Middle East there is no such thing as power vacuum. When one player leaves the scene another one steps in. President Obama's Middle East doctrine was to lead from behind and in the process transfer the leadership role to his European allies, who wanted no part of that "privilege". He wanted as minimal U.S. footprint there as he could possibly get away with. By doing so U.S. unwittingly open up a door for the Islamic State to step in and in the matter of just a couple of years completely reshape the map of the entire region.

Only a few years ago, there were the sovereign states of Iraq and Syria. Back in 1916 their borders were unwisely carved out by Brittain, France and Russia back in 1916 under the Sykes-Pickot agreement. These formerly independent countries are now patches of land controlled by dubious governments and hundreds of armed groups with questionable affiliations and constantly changing loyalties. To figure all of them out is a science in itself.

Hundred years later, in 2016, the western governments are still clinging to this failed geography experiment that can never be patched back together again. If the counties like the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia disintegrated into dozens of independent states, what are the chances of Iraq and Syria to remain intact?

The answer is that those chances are close to zero. The reality on the ground contradicts the wishful thinking of the U.S. and allies that these issues are somehow going to resolve themselves with minimal outside involvement. Given ethnic and religious diversity of the region and conflicting sectarian interests of the competing regional powers like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey, the civil war in Syria can last indefinitely.

Back in 2014, the US and allies put together three different coalitions numbering almost 60 countries. Their goal was and still is to confront Islamic State in Syria and Iraq militarily with the help of indigenous forces and severely cripple terrorist group's sources of financing. While it all sounded great on paper the actual effort on the ground and in the air was half hearted at best. The unfortunate result was an epic exodus of millions of refugees into neighboring countries and into Europe. This process is still going on destabilizing many host countries, some of whom can barely support their own populations.

In August of 2013, Syrian President Assad was caught using a sarin gas on the opposition held suburbs of Damascus and in the process killing over 1400 people including women and children. Over the years Syrian government accumulated enormous stockpiles of chemical weapons meant to be used against potential future conflict with Israel, but they ended up using them against both the rebels and civilians alike. His strategy was and still is to burn the rebel held cities and villages so no living being could survive there and offer any resistance.

The world was outraged and called Bashar al-Assad's actions "crimes against humanity". Assad's actions also crossed the so called red lines proclaimed by President Obama to bear "severe consequences". Crossing those lines should have prompted a military response from U.S. and allies and the plan for going ahead with it was already in place. While our administration was talking tough about what they were going to do, their actions told a completely different story.

The White House exhibited a noticeable hesitancy to punish the Assad regime as it went against their desire to step back from the Middle East conflicts. They showed their hand when the decision was made to get a congressional approval for military action against the Syrian government. It was seen by many of our adversaries as a weakness that could be exploited. There was one international player, Vladimir Putin, who did not hesitate to jump on the opportunity.

When US Secretary of State, John Kerry suggested that Assad can avoid the punishment by turning his chemical weapons over, the Russians acted as mediators and convinced the Syrian leader to do just that. On September 14, 2013 the agreement called "Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons" was signed.

Everybody got what they wanted. Assad was off the hook, Americans no longer had to worry about the "red lines" and the Russian were back as a major player in the treacherous politics of the Middle East. Although at the time it was not necessarily seen that way, but the Russians were the clear winners.

American administration almost welcomed Russia's involvement in Syria probably thinking that Putin is setting himself up for a major failure. There was even a talk about US-Russia partnership that would bring about a peaceful resolution of the Syrian civil war but it went nowhere.

The problem was that the allies completely underestimated Russia's commitment to saving Assad at any cost. While the Western powers fell into the self-induced coma, in September of 2015, Russian military forces popped up in Syria and began setting up air strike capabilities aimed at protecting the regime which was about to collapse. They justified their presence with the argument that their military base in Tartus needed protection. Soon thereafter Russian air force began their bombing campaign against the "terrorists".

Initially the hope was that Russian will take on Islamic State but very quickly it became apparent that by "terrorists" they meant anybody who is opposed to the Assad regime. ISIS was not even in the top three on their list. US meekly complained that Russia is bombing some of their allies. Russians just shrugged those complaints off and went about their business. Their aim is not just to defeat the Islamic State or any other specific group, but to reclaim the entire Syria under the control of Bashar al-Assad and secure for themselves a permanent and a dominant presence in the region.

Vladimir Putin knows very well who his regional allies are in the Syrian war. He also understands that the U.S. and the Europeans do not have that luxury. The infamous US attempt to arm the so-called moderate rebels ended up in major fiasco back in 2015, when the $500 million program was "temporarily" scraped after it produced less the 80 fighters most of whom were either killed or have deserted. Half a dozen of U.S. vehicles were turned over to the extremist militants with whom the rebels have very cozy relationships.

Nobody knows for sure how many rebel groups there are. Some estimate them in hundreds and others in thousands. The common denominator between these groups is that they do not take orders from the central command. In fact, it's not uncommon for them to fight each other for the commercially profitable territories or change alliance with a rival group if offered a better pay.

Lately U.S. seems to have changed their Syria policy in support for the indigenous Kurdish group named YPG, who proved to be the most potent fighting force against the Islamic state. The problem with that choice is that we can barely support them due to the fact that our NATO allies, the Turks, cosinder them to be a terrorist group and hits them whenever they get a chance.

But even the Turks get humbled when the Russian bear roars. In late November of 2016, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, expressed outrage over the carnage perpetrated by Assad forces during the indiscriminate bombing of Aleppo. He said that Turkish troops were sent to Syria to bring justice against the "tyrant" Assad. The next day, Russians demanded from Erdogan to explain his remarks. Erdogan promptly called Putin and according to Russian spokesmen the matter was addressed, but neither side provided the details.

Just a few months ago, in August of 2016, in the aftermath of the failed coup in Turkey, the remarks from Turkish Prime Minister Binali Ildirim raised eyebrows in Washington when he publicly said that Ankara would not mind if Russia used their Incirlik airbase for the raids against the Islamic State. There are two problems with this statement. First, the airbase is normally used by Turkish allies such as US, Germany, Qatar and others. The second problem is that Russia does not specifically target the Islamic State and views them only as a part of the broader terrorist infrastructure.

It was a blatant attempt by Turkish leaders to manipulate the behavior of their allies in order to advance their own agenda. It's very telling how much has Russia advanced their influence in the region when it is used as a bogey man to scare the major powers.

Iranians also played around with the idea of allowing the Russians to use their Hamadan airbase in western Iran. Back in August It was made available to Russian air force for bombing runs in Syria. The new partnership has lasted only for a week after Russians went public with it. Highly secretive Iranians halted the experiment until the further notice, but the precedent was set. Iran has a major commitment to Assad regime both financial and military and they understand that without Russian involvement their chances for success in Syria are not that great.

But Putin is not just sitting around hoping for a goodwill of the likes of Iran and Turkey. He knows how fleeting the commitments of those countries can be. He is using them more so to build his own reputation around the world while also taking steps to insure that he has a permanent military footprint in the region.

In October of 2016, Russian government ratified a treaty with the Assad regime for creation of Khmeimim Air Base located south-east of Latakia. It will be a permanent facility accessible only to the Russians. Their pilots are already using it to deliver air strikes against the Syrian rebel positions.

 Two Su-35 Flanker-E Russian Multi-purpose Fighter Jets

                                     Two Su-35 Flanker-E Russian Multi-purpose Fighter Jets

The base was fortified by installing the S-400 air defense system, the most sophisticated in Russia's arsenal. The S-400 system is capable of intercepting all types of modern aircraft as well as cruise and ballistic missiles within the 250 miles radius.

It was deployed to Syria in November of 2015 after Turkey shot down Russian Su-24 fighter plane. The incident blew up into major conflict between the two counties and while they have since reconciled, after President Erdogan's apology, the Russian air defense systems are now a permanent fixture in Syria and the deterrent against any potential threat.

At the same time Russia will create a permanent naval base in Tartus, which has been leased to them by Syrians since the cold war era and used mainly for replenishment and repair purposes. Under the new agreement the Tartus facility will be upgraded and expanded. A Russian government official explained that the purpose of this expansion was not only to "increase their military potential in Syria, but in the entire Middle East".

Putin's regime could not have made their intentions any clearer and just to put a stamp on it during the first week of October, 2016 Russia deployed to Tartus naval base the highly mobile S-300V4 surface-to-air missile systems. The U.S. officials were quick to point out that none of the Syrian rebel groups or the Islamic State militants possess the airplanes capable of posing a threat to Tartus facility.

In response the Russian Defense Ministry spokesman issued a statement that S-300 system is "purely defensive system and poses no threat to anyone" and could not understand why the deployment caused such an alarm among western countries. He must be thinking that U.S. and allies are complete fools and can not read the obvious signal that any attempt to overthrow Assad regime will be met with force.

Not only Russians are taking the concrete steps to solidify their positions in Syria but they are also sending not so veil threats. On October 1st, 2016 Russia's state-run Sputnik news agency reported that Russian's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the following: "If the U.S. launches a direct aggression against Damascus and the Syrian army, it will lead to terrible, tectonic shifts not only on the territory of this country, but also in the region in general."

Putin's goal is to restore Russia's greatness at all costs and stick it to the West while doing it. Just a couple of months ago his party, The United Russia, has won an overwhelming majority in country's parliamentary elections. Putin is still very popular in Russia and his adventure into the Syrian conflict did not morph into the quagmire yet, despite the predictions to the contrary from the Western politicians and military experts.

Russia has used a relatively small force to change the tide of Syrian civil war and saved Assad regime that was all but finished. Had U.S. and allies exhibited more of the backbone and conviction couple of year ago we would not find ourselves in this predicament. Unlike the West, Russia is not limited by its own confines. They are not listening to the polls and seek advice from military professionals and not from the lawyers and the politicians.

Finding a common ground between Russia and US over, Syria is not going to be easy. The meetings between Secretary of state Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov are so frequent that they sometimes resemble a never ending soap opera. All that effort and frequent flier miles could not produce even a temporary seize fire so the starving Syrians in the besieged areas can get some humanitarian aid.

Secretary Kerry Delivers Remarks on Syria at a Press Conference

        Secretary Kerry Delivers Remarks on Syria at a Press Conference, U.S. Dept of State  

City of Aleppo is a present day Dresden. Once a bustling city of 2 million people and the economic hub of Syria it is barely recognizable today. It's inhabitants are venturing out from the ruins they call shelters to score some food and water in between the bombing runs by Syrian and Russian jets. Death finds them at every corner as pilots seem to target anything that moves without distinguishing between a rebel or a civilian, child or an elderly, hospital or military installation.

There is an anger and condemnations emanating from many sources, but nothing really serious. United Nations cannot even produce a resolution condemning the carnage because as a permanent member of the Security Council, Russians have a veto power over any such attempt. So to justify their existence, U.N. does the next best thing by beating up on Israel, their favorite whipping boy.

On November 30th, 2016 General Assmbly adapted six resolutions on "Palestine and Middle East issues". One of the issues dealt with Israeli "occupation" of Jerusalem and the other with a return of the Golan Heights to Syrian government currently under the leadership of the Butcher of Aleppo, Bashar al-Assad.

Speaking of Israel, Russia currently maintains cordial relationships with the Jewish State as they developed the coordination procedures in order to avoid any possibility of the accidents. Unfortunately, Putin's partners like Assad regime, Iran and Hezbollah are the mortal enemies of the Jewish state. They cannot possibly be looking with approval at the cozy interaction between the Kremlin and Jerusalem. The danger lies in Putin's allies manipulating him into the confrontation with Israelis since they at times fly over the same skies.

President Putin & Bibi Netanyahu address the press in Jerusalem

President Putin & Bibi Netanyahu address the press in Jerusalem, Israel National Photo collection

While Putin is hated by the Sunnis opposed to Bashar Al Assad regime, he still commands a certain amount of respect among them for having the guts to stand by his ally at the time of need. Not only do they respect him, but they also fear him and in the Middle East politics that carries a lot of weight.

They are also very angry at the limited commitment provided by their allies, Americans and Europeans, compared to that provided by Putin to Assad. Over 500.000 Syrians have been killed in this conflict since March of 2011 while the leaders of the free world are still meekly looking at each other for some sort of leadership.

Our traditional allies like the Saudis are exhibiting a tremendous amount of anxiety over the growing power of Shia crescent. No wonder that some of them feel abandoned and are seeking a better relationship with Russia. They are hoping that something will change with a new administration in Washington but that remains to be seen.

The best example of the growing Russian influence is their role in the signing of an oil production deal that involved Saudi Arabia and Iran, the sworn enemies currently engaged in multiple proxy wars. On October 1st, 2016 Reuters reported the following:

"Russian President Vladimir Putin played a crucial role in helping OPEC rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia set aside differences to forge the cartel's first deal with non-OPEC Russia in 15 years. Putin’s role as intermediary between Riyadh and Tehran was pivotal, testament to the rising influence of Russia in the Middle East since its military intervention in the Syrian civil war just over a year ago."

For any player who throws himself into Middle East politics, risks are great, but so are the potential rewards. Vladimir Putin went all in, when he sensed the weakness in the opposing side, and for a time being he is reaping the rewards. He was not given a chance for succeeding and was often ridiculed for making such a dumb move. Contrary to the critics, Putin proved that a former KGB operative understands Middle East better than Western educated politicians with their fancy degrees.

He knows that in this neighborhood you need to project an image of a strong and decisive leader, cold-blooded in his actions. Mr Putin is just another dictator flexing his muscles in the region full of dictators. He has intimidated the local powers and the only real opposition he is facing at this time is from the naive and timid liberal democracies in Europe and U.S. and fanatical Islamic State. Unfortunately this configuration will work well for Russia but not for the rest of the world.