John R. Bradley

The Russian plane crash could undermine Putin’s Syria strategy

The Russian plane crash could undermine Putin's Syria strategy
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It now seems fairly likely that an explosion brought down the Russian passenger airline over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula over the weekend. One Metrojet official has already suggested that the 'only explainable cause is physical impact on the aircraft' and they have ruled out technical failure or human error. If the ongoing investigation proves that to be the case, it will obviously have an immediate and catastrophic impact on Egypt's already decimated tourism industry. A jihadist would have been able to infiltrate one of the country's supposedly most secure airports to plant a sizeable explosive device on a specific airline. PR disasters do not come much worse than that – and just one day before the country was due to launch a new global ad campaign promoting local tourism attractions with the slogan 'This is Egypt'.

But it would also be the most unwelcome news possible for Vladimir Putin, who sold military intervention in Syria to the Russian people as a way of making them safer. In turn, opponents of Russian intervention – the US, Turkey and the Gulf Arab despots – would be privately elated. For does this not prove their argument that Russian intervention only complicates the situation on the ground while increasing the threat of terror attacks?

Worse, from Putin's perspective, would be that despite a month of almost constant aerial bombardment from Russian and Syrian fighter jets and a barrage of cruise missiles, Islamic State have launched a successful counterattack in Syria. As the airline was falling to the ground, Islamic State, who have claimed responsibility for the crash, were inching closer towards control of a key section of a major motorway that is a crucial supply route for the Assad regime.

These dramatic developments come in the wake of the first round of peace talks in Vienna, at which the main participants – the US, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – merely agreed to disagree on the need to remove Assad from power. Syria will be invited to the next round of negotiations, scheduled for sometime during the coming months.

All, of course, realise that it is only worth negotiating from a position of strength. The anti-Assad allies will be hoping that Putin now fears a new Afghanistan, and will therefore be more flexible on the question of Assad's departure. They will also be determined to ramp up support for the so-called 'moderate rebels', especially given that Washington has recently sent in Special Forces to 'advise' them (or, in other words, act as human shields against Russian bombs).

But Putin is the last world leader to show weakness under duress. If the airplane disaster is proven to have been a planned attack, he is more likely to escalate air strikes dramatically in Syria while rallying the Russian masses to the fight against terror.

So at this stage only one thing is clear: those who thought Russian intervention in Syria signalled the swift demise of the Islamic State – and the pro-Putin channel Russia Today was practically calling victory after just a few days – were sadly mistaken.