Why Trump’s Syria air strike was humiliating for Putin
THE biggest loser from last week's cruise-missile strikes on a Syrian air base wasn't President Bashar al-Assad. It was Vladimir Putin. The Syrian leader was punished, but Russia's new tsar was humiliated.
Even with an hour's warning of the attacks, Putin's military in Syria did nothing to defend its ally. For all of the Russian bluster in recent years, Putin couldn't stop the strikes. His military lacked the means to do so. And any attempt to interfere with the operation would only have revealed the inferior quality of Russian armaments - including their much-ballyhooed air defence systems.
This is vitally important, because Putin used his military leap into Syria to show that Russia was a reliable ally at a time when US policy was timid, incompetent and flighty under President Barack Obama. Russia looked strong. The US didn't.
But the wave of cruise missiles unleashed on Syria early Friday called Putin's bluff. And Russia didn't dare to lift a finger.
Much has been written and spoken about the attack's potential effect on North Korean calculations. Whether or not the strikes affect Kim Jong Un's behaviour, the strategic math has been altered.
But what really changed was Iranian perceptions. The cruel old men in Tehran have been counting on their alliance with Russia to help ward off US or Israeli blows. Suddenly, Moscow doesn't look so dependable.
Faced with recent defence budget cuts - thanks to US sanctions and low oil prices - Russia's defence industry is desperate to sell late-model weapons abroad.
It's the only way Putin can continue his military renewal, which is essential to his strategy.
Suddenly, Russian weaponry, which has never had a great reputation, doesn't look much like a bargain. If Russia's "cutting-edge" S-400 system merely stayed idle and Russian aircraft stayed on the ground while the US hit Assad's air base with impunity, global observers will conclude either that Putin was scared or that his military was incapable. Or both.
The truth is that Putin, who terrified Obama and whose minions shaped the chronic state of alarm in Washington to Moscow's advantage, has always been a braggart and a bully. All it took to back him down was resolute behaviour by President Trump.
The Russian post-attack response was telling. All but one of the 59 cruise missiles launched hit their targets. Moscow's generals immediately insisted that half of the missiles had gone astray.
Why? Because Russia's own cruise-missile attack in Syria last year was a mess, with over half of their weapons failing. Note that Russia's first response was a frantic attempt to defend the quality of its weapons, not to defend Assad.
Complicating matters for the mangy bear, Putin has begun to regret his Syrian entanglement. The Syrian opposition proved more tenacious than his advisers predicted and his military couldn't afford to continue to use expensive guided munitions, so his air force had to resort to dumb bombs and the consequent atrocities.
Russian casualties have been notably higher that the Kremlin admits. And there is no end in sight, even as Assad proves an ever-more-difficult ally.
And no, Russia has not been fighting ISIS. Putin has been waging war on the Syrian people, while letting America's superior targeting and more advanced weapons take on the terrorists - the US have been his tools and patsies on that count.
Russia's pathetic response also included dispatching a rust-bucket destroyer to the eastern Mediterranean and his defence ministry announced that it will deploy more air defence weapons to Syria. But the damage to his reputation is done.
Of course, the US can't rule out a staged confrontation with pilots in Syrian airspace. Putin needs to recover the enormous amount of face he lost - but he'll seek to do so as cheaply as possible. He can't afford another embarrassment. And he's not facing Obama anymore.
Putin wasn't the target when the President ordered the cruise-missile attack. The operation was a one-time blow delivered to teach Assad the US will no longer tolerate his use of chemical weapons. But Putin was the not-so-innocent bystander caught in the blast, and that may prove to be even more important than the strike's core purpose.
All it took to disarm Putin was to call his bluff. Trump deserves applause for this one.
Ralph Peters is Fox News' strategic analyst.