MOSCOW – President Vladimir Putin's intervention in Syria has saved President Bashar Assad's government from imminent collapse and raised Russia's global clout. But after last week's chemical weapons attack their relationship is increasingly becoming a burden for Putin, jeopardizing chances for improved relations with the U.S.
Still, the Russian leader has made clear he will not abandon Assad.
It's hard to imagine how Russia and the U.S. could agree on Syria after President Donald Trump called Assad "an animal" over the deadly chemical attack, while Moscow has insisted on the Syrian leader's innocence.
Putin hasn't lost hope of making a "grand deal" with Trump, but the Russian leader's unflinching support for Damascus indicates that he doesn't see dumping Assad as part of it.
The tense talks U.S. State Secretary Rex Tillerson held in Moscow on Wednesday didn't seem to narrow the gap.
Even though the Kremlin said last week that its support for Assad isn't unconditional and emphasized that it can't control the Syrian leader's every move, such statements sound more like rhetoric aimed at deflecting Western criticism than a signal of Moscow's readiness to bargain over Assad's fate.
The Russian president can't accept the Syrian ruler's demise for a variety of reasons. It would deprive Moscow of its only ally in the Middle East that hosts Russian air force and naval assets. But even more crucially, it would cast Russia as a loser in the six-year Syrian conflict, dealing a blow to its aspirations to regain Soviet-era global clout and prestige.
Putin has now found himself in a trap: Abandoning Assad would amount to recognition that the Kremlin's policy was wrong, while maintaining support for the Syrian ruler could risk destroying any chance for a detente with the U.S. and raise the threat of a military confrontation.
Russia has argued that civilians in the northern Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun likely died of toxic agents released from a rebel arsenal hit by a Syrian airstrike — a theory categorically rejected by the U.S. and its allies.
Putin cited intelligence he said showed the Syrian opposition was preparing new "provocations" with toxic agents to cast blame on the Syrian government. He likened the U.S. response in bombing a Syrian air base to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, arguing that now just as then Washington relied on false data about chemical weapons.
The Russian leader also accused the West of playing the Syrian card to try to consolidate the solidarity shaken by Trump's election victory by casting Russia as a common enemy.
Putin's statements signal that he doesn't see dropping Assad as a viable option. Just the opposite, Moscow's decision to suspend a vital communications link with the U.S. military in Syria has signaled its readiness to raise the stakes.
Neither Syria nor Russia used their air defense assets to try to fend off last week's U.S. attack on the Shayrat air base, which Washington said had served as a platform for the chemical attack. The U.S. issued advance notice to Russia to avoid hitting its personnel before unleashing a volley of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles from U.S. warships in the Mediterranean.
In a paradoxical response to the strike, Moscow froze the military hotline with the U.S. The Russian move amounted to a stark warning: Don't launch any more strikes or risk unpredictable consequences.
Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of the Russian parliament said Moscow would only agree to restore the link on condition that the "U.S. abandons any action against the Syrian army."
In another warning to Washington, the Russian military has pledged to help Syria beef up its air defenses.
In some ways, Russia's official military presence in Syria could make the situation potentially even more menacing now compared to what it was during the war in Vietnam, when the Soviet Union never officially acknowledged its military involvement.
If Russia or Syria were to use their military assets to fend off any future U.S. strike, it may put Moscow and Washington on the brink of a head-on confrontation, and the Kremlin's decision to cut the crucial communications link between the militaries could make matters worse.
The Pentagon has insisted that no such danger exists. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said U.S.-Russian tensions over Syria "will not spiral out of control," arguing that Moscow has no interest in allowing the current disagreements over Syria to lead to a broader confrontation. He said that the two countries are maintaining military and diplomatic communications.
Vladimir Isachenkov has covered Russia for the Associated Press since 1992.