Russia to US: Let's coordinate your punitive airstrikes on Assad

Is Russia negotiating missile strikes as a method of appeasing Donald Trump? The Washington Post reports that Russia has shifted gears from confrontation to mitigation with the US after assisting Bashar al-Assad’s capture of the rebel stronghold Douma. At first, Moscow threatened a military conflict if Trump followed through on his threat to punish Assad for yet another use of chemical weapons that Russia had guaranteed were destroyed:

Russian officials on Thursday sought to tamp down public fears of a looming conflict with the United States, even as Syrian government forces took control of the town where they are suspected of carrying out a chemical attack last weekend. …

Russian officials in recent days had warned of the possibility of a direct military confrontation with the United States as a result of a U.S. strike. Any missile attack that puts Russian lives at risk, Moscow has said, would result in Russia striking back at the missiles and at the planes or ships that launched them.

Today, however, they’ve changed their tune to the point of signaling that a nominal strike on targets without Russian personnel might not get a response. In fact, Russian military sources suggest that they will help coordinate the strikes to ensure no Russian casualties:

In the wake of Trump’s Wednesday tweet warning Russia of a planned U.S. missile strike, however, Moscow appears to be trying to make clear it does not want a war and that a limited attack that doesn’t risk Russian lives would not precipitate a military response.

“I rule out a scenario in which the United States will intentionally strike a facility in Syria where Russian servicemen are located,” Military Sciences Academy vice president Sergei Modestov said in Thursday’s edition of the government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta.

The Kommersant newspaper quoted anonymous Defense Ministry sources as saying that Russia’s General Staff was in touch with the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and expected to receive coordinates on airstrike targets from the Pentagon in order to avoid Russian casualties.

That might explain why Trump appeared to walk back his threat to strike Syria this morning, a day after promising to rain “smart” missiles down on Assad:

Russians apparently feared that Trump was about to go all-in on Assad:

President Trump’s desire to prevent future chemical attacks in Syria has fueled speculation that the U.S. leader may authorize an attack that is more far-reaching than the one he launched a year ago.

A larger strike, possibly including stealth aircraft and strikes on multiple sites, could inflict lasting damage to military facilities and economic infrastructure that have been vital to President Bashar al-Assad’s ability to regain his grip on Syria seven years into a grinding war.

But a wider attack will face multiple immediate and longer-term risks, including the possibility of a dangerous escalation with Russia, Assad’s main military backer, in a country that Moscow has used as a testing ground for some of its most sophisticated weaponry.

It’s not just the US preparing to strike Assad, though. Theresa May has sent an attack group from the British navy to the coast of Syria to join the US in its reprisals. France affirmed its support for new attacks on Syria this morning, making it yet another diplomatic nightmare for the Russians. If they can hold down the damage while allowing some punitive action that’s limited to just Assad, Vladimir Putin might just ring that up as the cost of doing business.

Putin’s worried about another player looking to reset the battlefield entirely. He called Benjamin Netanyahu earlier to ask him to stop attacking Iranian positions in Syria. Netanyahu gave him the answer you’d expect:

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke on Wednesday, and the Russian leader urged Israel not to take action in Syria and to threaten its security. Israeli officials confirmed the call took place and said that Netanyahu told Putin that Israel will not permit Iran to set up a military presence in Syria.

The news of the telephone call between Netanyahu and Putin appeared as Netanyahu took the stage in Israel’s main Holocaust memorial event and issued a threat to Iran not to “test Israel’s resolve.” The Russians announced the call in statement on the website of the Kremlin, which specified that Putin insisted it is “important” to maintain Syria’s sovereignty.

Putin’s trying to head off yet another proxy war in its newly won back yard. It may already be too late for that:

The air raid that Israel is said to have mounted Monday against the Iranian airbase called T4 in Syria was apparently a watershed moment in Iran’s aspiration to establish a local foothold. The bombing raid had significant results compared to previous attacks, and Tehran’s threats to retaliate make the collision course already marked with Israel more likely. An Iranian retribution may lead in turn to an Israeli response that could almost entirely wipe out Iran’s military presence in Syria. …

It’s been half a year now that the leadership in Jerusalem – the prime minister, defense minister, cabinet ministers and chief of staff – have been openly stating that as far as they’re concerned, a new line has been drawn in the Syrian sand. Israel will do what it takes to frustrate Iran’s military establishment there.

Based on foreign media reports, these threats were backed by acts: first with attacks ascribed to Israel in which it reportedly reacted to fire from battles in the Golan between the Assad forces and the rebels that seeped over the border; Iranian transponders and intelligence outposts on the border were also bombed. …

The latest attack ascribed to Israel exposes Iran’s real intentions: Major General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and a crony of Khamenei’s, is building an extensive, smart system in Syria, aimed against Israel. The nature of this activity is being kept secret from Russia, which sees itself as allied with the axis supporting Assad. Its dimensions are apparently also secret from top Iranians as well: President Hassan Rohani balks at increasing investment in the Quds Force and in the wars that Soleimani is pursuing in the region.

For Russia and the Assad regime, it is a big headache. A collision between Israel and Iran would imperil the regime’s ambition of regaining control and could have other prices for Assad. Soleimani, according to Israeli pundits, is in effect undermining Russian interests in Syria. Meanwhile Assad lost a lot of his anti—aircraft power because of Israeli raids after the F-16 was shot down.

The US might be looking to make Syria and Russia pay a steep price for its alliance with Iran in Syrian territory. If so, then allowing the US a few targets for a one-off reprisal might be the cheapest way out of the conundrum for Putin.