Although Vladimir Putin’s spokesman spoke reservedly Saturday, Jan. 21, about Donald Trump’s inauguration as US president the day before – It would be “an illusion” to expect Russian-US ties to be “free of disagreement” – Moscow’s actions in Syria were clearly designed to meet the new US president more than half way.
Trump in his inauguration speech pledged to wipe radical Islamist terrorism “off the face of the earth.”
His words were still reverberating when Russian long-range Tu-22M3 bombers flying in from bases in Russia smashed Islamic State targets in the eastern Syrian province of Deir ez-Zour the next day. The bombers hit ISIS base camps, weapons stockpiles and armored vehicles, covered overhead by Russian fighter jets from their Syrian air base at Hmeimim. After the sortie, the Tupolev bombers flew home.
DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources interpret the heavy Russian bombardment of ISIS as one of several signals Putin is sending out of his willingness to go the extra mile for a common effort with Trump to root ISIS and all its works out of the Middle East.
The Russians stepped in massively when, after holding out for many months of siege and assault at the important provincial town of Deir ez-Zor,, Syrian government forces were about to fold and the town and air base fall to ISIS.
Last Wednesday, Russian transport helicopters flew hundreds of Syrian troops to relieve them: Two brigades from the 15th Infantry Division, belonging to the elite Republic Guard, were lifted out of the northern Qamishli region. When the Syrian lines were still in danger, the Russian helicopters turned around and flew back with members of the Lebanese Hizballah’s elite Radwan Force, to bolster the Syrian stand and save Deir ez-Zour.
For Putin, the injection of Hizballah into a major Syrian battle came at an awkward moment in terms of his diplomatic strategy on the eve of the Syrian peace conference that opens in Astana, Kazakhstan, Sunday, Jan. 23, under his joint sponsorship with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan.
The Russian leader had already give his co-sponsor a commitment to initiate a resolution at Astana demanding the withdrawal of all pro-Iranian militias from Syria, including Hizballah. This aimed at pacifying Syrian opposition groups, but was also meant to demonstrate to President Trump that Moscow would be a strong partner in the war on ISIS while also ready to clip Iran’s wings and influence in the affairs of Syria and Lebanon.
At the same time, Russian war strategists appreciate the urgency of averting the fall of Deir ez-our and its air base to the Islamists. This catastrophe would negatively impact the entire campaign against the terrorist organization on its three main fronts, Mosul, Raqqa and Palmyra, and count as ISIS’ biggest victory in the past year.