Threat recedes of direct US-Russian conflict following Syrian air strikes

Putin says US aggression has deepened Syria’s humanitarian crisis

Russian president Vladimir Putin: “Russia condemns in the most serious way the attack on Syria, where Russian servicemen are helping the lawful government in the fight against terrorism.” Photograph: Getty Images

Russian president Vladimir Putin: “Russia condemns in the most serious way the attack on Syria, where Russian servicemen are helping the lawful government in the fight against terrorism.” Photograph: Getty Images

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Russia responded with a stream of invective and bluster to the US-led air strikes on Syria on Friday night, but the immediate threat of a direct military conflict between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers in the region appeared to have receded.

Vladimir Putin branded the attack as illegal, saying US aggression had deepened Syria’s humanitarian crisis and dealt a destructive blow to the whole system of international relations.

“Russia condemns in the most serious way the attack on Syria, where Russian servicemen are helping the lawful government in the fight against terrorism,” the Russian president said in a statement posted on the Kremlin website early on Saturday morning.

Russia would call for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council to discuss the “aggressive action of the US and its allies”, he added.

When Donald Trump warned last week that the US was preparing a military onslaught to punish Syrian president Bashar al-Assad for a suspected poison gas attack on the town of Douma near Damascus, Russia said it would retaliate if any of its servicemen or facilities were hit in Syria.

Before dawn broke on Saturday morning in Moscow, Russia’s defence ministry issued a statement indicating that the threat of direct military conflict with the US had been averted.

US, UK and French missiles had targeted civilian and military facilities in Syria, it said, but had not hurt any of the several thousand Russian servicemen deployed in the country or entered Russia’s air defence zone.

Russia vehemently denies that President Assad was behind the suspected deadly poison gas attack in Douma, and is furious that the US went ahead with air strikes even before a planned investigation by the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons got under way at the weekend.

Last strongholds

Whoever was responsible, the atrocity has played to Assad’s advantage militarily, driving rebels out of Douma and the surrounding eastern Ghouta region, one of their last strongholds in the battle with Syrian government forces.

At a press briefing at the Russian defence ministry on Moscow on Saturday, Lieut Gen Sergei Rudskoi flagged the strength of his country’s military alliance with Assad’s forces, saying that the US response to the alleged chemicals attack was a “reaction to the successes of the Syrian armed forces in the struggle to liberate their territory from international terrorism”.

Syria’s Soviet-made air defence system had proved its worth during the US-led attack on Friday night, intercepting 71 incoming missiles, he claimed. Russia would reconsider an earlier agreement with its western partners to halt supply of S-300 AD systems to Syria and other countries in the wake of the US air strikes, he added.

Even if Assad has gained the upper hand militarily, international tensions over the US-led air strikes may complicate Russia’s efforts to lead an alliance with Turkey and Iran promoting a political settlement of the Syrian conflict. Turkey welcomed the US-led strikes against Assad’s regime as an “appropriate response” to the suspected chemicals attack.

However, Russia’s foreign ministry slammed the US and its allies for dealing a “powerful blow” to the parallel UN-backed Geneva political peace process.

“Western countries are aligning themselves with jihadists in Syria and seeking to dismember the country,” the ministry said in a statement.

Hopeless

Even if a disastrous US-Russian military confrontation over the suspected chemicals attack has been avoided for now, relations between the two countries will remain “essentially hopeless for the indefinite future”, Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.

“America’s approach towards Russia will likely consist of a methodical mounting of pressure on it in multiple domains – in anticipation that, at some point, the pressure will become unbearable for Moscow.The Kremlin, for its part, is adamant that it will not surrender, knowing that the adversary will be merciless even after its victory.”

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