The US military has absolute escalation dominance over the Russian armed forces in the Middle East. There is simply no denying or getting around this fact.
Russia can fight on more than an equal footing against the US in the Baltic, in the Ukraine, the Arctic, the Black Sea, the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Far East. It can not do so in the Middle East.
Like it or not any US-Russian confrontation in the Middle East is taking place on America’s turf. The Pentagon has so many assets stationed in the region it might as well be Texas.
Russia’s military contingent in Syria is tiny by comparison (30 jets), and couldn’t hold up against a full on American assault.
Russian warnings that they will strike back if American attacks on the Syrians put them in danger are fine and well as they provide a measure of deterrence but Russia should think twice about actually carrying them out.
Naturally the Russians will be dying to strike back and could almost certainly cook up a number of surprises for the Americans, however, if wounded American pride triggers an escalatory spiral of violence there is only two ways that can end — the destruction of Russian contingent in Syria or the annihilation of the human race.
Russia is the weaker side here and must adopt the tactics of the weak. Of the Syrians, Iranians, the Serbs… It must forsake ego, pride and prestige and keep eyes focused on the war goal alone. It must think strategically, and forsake the opportunities even for those tactical victories it could have — lest the defeat inflicted humiliates the other, more powerful side and causes it to come back with an even larger force and a more ambitious war plan.
Luckily for the Russians and the Syrians the anticipated US strikes in no way threaten their war goals. Trump has expressed no interest in toppling the Syrian government or invading territory under its control.
By all appearances his sole interest is in killing some people and then sailing away.
This means it should be exceedingly easy in principle for the Russians to simply absorb the strikes, suffer the “humiliation” then go back to the business of winning the damn war.
And when the last Salafist jihadi is stiff in the Syrian dust that will have been the best payback. The US will have the dubious prestige and psycho points of having carried out unanswered penal expeditions, the Syrians and the Russians the sweetness of victory.
And if Moscow really must retaliate it should do it far, far away from Syria in a completely different context.
Actually I think Putin understands this. You will recall that in 2014 he kept getting even with the west, but he always did it in an unexpected, judoist way. When the west helped topple the Ukrainian government he freed the new pro-western Ukraine of Crimea. When the west declared financial sanctions against him, he declared agricultural sanctions against them. And when the Americans and EU lackeys frustrated South Stream pipeline he cancelled it and offered it to the Turks instead.
And one more point, many pro-Russian commentators raged all these years against Kremlin for not being firmer against Erdogan. For allowing him back into the fold after he ambushed and shot down the Russian Su-24 jet in a pre-planned provocation. For dealing with him and allowing him to invade the north of Syria and even set up a safe zone for Islamist rebels there. For not getting proper justice for the slain war pilot.
Yet as precarious as the Russian position is now, how much weaker would it have been if Erdogan was on Trump’s side right now rather than neutral?
Like it or not Turkey is a huge regional power (80 million people, 2nd largest army in NATO) and unless Russia wants to fight it, which it doesn’t, then for as long as it is dealing with so many potential enemies it has to accommodate it. Putin seems to understand something that the most jingoistic commentators do not. When your resources and power are limited you must pick your battles with extreme care.
In the same spirit Russia should opt not to offer battle to Trump’s armada, but serve up its revenge later and on its own terms. Preferably by accomplishing something rather than just spilling blood as Trump plans to.