Vladimir Putin's approval ratings are riding high, as domestic and international support surges for Russian intervention in Syria. So far, the influx of roughly three dozen Russian bombers, military hardware and "advisors" has had plenty of upsides and no downsides for Putin, as news reports show the effectiveness of Russian airstrikes in support of Syrian (and Iranian!) troops.
Russian Airstrikes Ignore ISIS, Target US-Supported Rebels
Western media reports that so far, 80% of Russia's airstrikes in Syria have been against targets other than ISIS. These targets include U.S.-backed "moderate" rebels around the strategic northern city of Aleppo. Some Western media reports claim that Russia has bombed nine hospitals in Syria. The Guardian newspaper puts the number at "at least four" hospitals, which have been targeted throughout the conflict by the Syrian military.
Perhaps in reaction to claims that they were ignoring ISIS, yesterday Russian attack jets struck an ISIS-controlled bridge over the Euphrates River, at the Syrian-Iraqi border. The bridge was being used to bring equipment and supplies captured by ISIS from the Iraqi army into Syria. Despite this border strike, Putin announced that Russia had no intention of expanding its air offensive into Iraq.
Historical Ties Between Russia and Syria
It should come as no surprise that Putin, whose self-stated purpose in life is to return Russia to international prominence, has intervened in a major way in Syria. The first Russian-Syrian diplomatic ties were forged before Syria had even established its independence from France in 1946. Russian troops have assisted Syria numerous times since then. with training or even manning surface to air missile batteries to keep Israel away. The Soviet Union was the major source of military and economic assistance to Syria throughout the Cold War, and Syria reciprocated by granting Russia rights to a naval base in Tartus, giving the Soviet Union a base of operations in the Mediterranean.
Has Russia Seized the Initiative in the Middle East?
This week, Syrian president Assad made a surprise visit to Moscow, to thank Putin for his support for his regime. The US was incensed at this development, widely seen as a signal from Russia that its support for Assad was non-negotiable. Shortly after Putin rubbed Washington's nose in the fact that it has failed in resolving the Syrian crisis to its desires, the new prime minister of Canada announced that his country was pulling out of the US-led coalition that is bombing ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Speaking of that coalition, Russia has inked an agreement with Jordan to coordinate air activity over Syria, sharing intelligence and proposed targets each side was attacking. This is the first Sunni Arab nation to start cooperating with Russia in Syria. Shiite Iran and Iraq have been working closely with the Russian forces in Syria to prop up the Assad regime.
These developments have more analysts coming to the conclusion that Russia has seized the diplomatic initiative in Syria, and has re-asserted its traditional role as protector of Arab nations against US intervention.
The success of Russian airstrikes against all opposition factions in Syria have led to Putin playing a major role in deciding Assad's fate. The US, Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia met on Friday to explore a political solution to the Syrian civil war, but US insistence that Assad had to be removed from power collided with Russian support of its long-time ally, and talks broke off.
Much to the chagrin of the Obama administration, Russia has proven enthusiastically willing and able to resume its traditional role as a major player in the Middle East.