The recent mystery air raid on a bona fide UN aid convoy near Aleppo isn't really a mystery at all...
The Russians are denying that their aircraft were operating above Aleppo during the strike, but they know the U.S. government quickly figured out that they were responsible. After all, every time the Russians or Syrians launch jets, U.S. radar and intelligence assets carefully monitor them, warning U.S. forces of any deliberate Russian or Syrian air strike. The monitoring also provided valuable intelligence on where Russian military attention is focused. Regardless, Putin knows the U.S. employs these capabilities and that we would have been focused on Russia’s heavy air coverage of Aleppo.
And that leads to the key takeaway: Putin just doesn’t care that he’s been caught. On the contrary, his strategy is actually served by his lack of concern.
In destroying the humanitarian convoy, Putin has simply reinforced his longstanding message to the West. In many ways, it is pitch-perfect. An aid convoy is not off-limits, Putin is telling President Obama — which means that we should expect worse to come. In other words, unless the United States accepts keeping Bashar al-Assad in power, Putin will continue to burn Syria. And Assad — totally undeterred by the pathetic weakness of U.S. deterrent power — revels in this longstanding slaughter strategy. Russia might hint that this attack is retaliation for the accidental U.S. bombing of Syrian soldiers, but it wasn’t. Instead, it was pure Putin: deliberate and brutal application of force in the service of a long-term strategy.Of course, this raises another question: If Putin’s interests are served by this strike, why is Russia denying involvement? The answer is simple: Putin knows that 44 knows, and that’s all that counts. To preserve a pretense of moral credibility, Russia is employing its familiar disinformation strategy to deny responsibility. These denials will cool or distract some of the international public anger against him. But Putin also predicts that two developments will now follow.First, the U.S. won’t provide evidence of Russian culpability. Second, the U.S. will continue dancing Russia’s diplomatic waltz by redeploying John Kerry into another round of pointless negotiations.
The U.S should defy Putin’s expectations in both cases. We should use the U.N. Security Council to confront the Russians with evidence of their culpability. The U.S. should also suspend all cabinet-level discussions with Russia on Syria’s future. Instead, we should escalate our support to moderate rebel factions. For some groups, that support should include the provision of man-portable surface-to-air missile systems.
The whys behind this latest Russian aggression are not complicated. In the end, it’s just another product of 44’s foreign-policy lethargy. As in the Baltics, Putin continues to hold the reins. And so, Assad’s confidence — and the fuel his regime gives ISIS — grows ever stronger. And U.S. credibility — moral and strategic — grows ever weaker. And the overflowing morgue that is Syria grows ever more desperate.