The dynamic in Syria is not fundamentally different from the dynamic in the Ukraine: the Neocons know that they have failed to achieve their primary objective: to control the entire country. They also know that their various related financial schemes have collapsed. Finally, they are fully aware that they owe this defeat to Russia and, especially, to Vladimir Putin. So they fell back on plan B. Plan B is almost as good as Plan A (full control) because Plan B has much wider consequences. Plan B is also very simple: trigger a major crisis with Russia but stay short from a full-scale war. Ideally, Plan B should revolve around a “firm” “reaction” to the Russian “aggression” and a “defense” of the US “allies” in the region. In practical terms this simply means: get the Russians to openly send forces into Novorussia or get the Russians to take military actions against the US or its allies in Syria. Once you get this you can easily see that the latest us attacks in Syria have a minor local purpose – to scare or slow down the Syrians- and a major global purpose – to bait the Russians into using forces against the US or an ally. It bears repeating here that what the Neocons really want is what I call a “tepid” war with Russia: an escalation of tensions to levels not even seen during the Cold War, but not a full-scale “hot” WWIII either. A tepid war would finally re-grant NATO at least some kind of purpose (to protect “our European friends and allies” from the “Russian threat”): the already terminally spineless EU politicians would all be brought into an even more advanced state of subservience, the military budgets would go even higher and Trump would be able to say that he made “America” “great” again. And, who knows, maybe the Russian people would *finally* rise against Putin, you never know! (They wouldn’t – but the Neocons have never been deterred from their goofy theories by such minor and altogether irrelevant things as facts or logic).It's rather fascinating how the Russians, rather like George Washington, keep "losing" the direct engagements, but somehow end up in the superior position a month or two later. But that's why strategy and operations matter more than tactical brilliance.
Does the Russian strategy work?
To reply to this, don’t look at what the Russians do or do not do in the immediate aftermath of a US provocation. Take a higher level look and just see what happens in the mid to long term. Just like in a game of chess, taking the Gambit is not always the correct strategy.
I submit that to evaluate whether Putin’s policies are effective or not, to see whether he has “sold out” or “caved in” you need to, for example, look at the situation in Syria (or the Ukraine, for that matter) as it was 2 years ago and then compare with what it is today. Or, alternatively, look at the situation as it is today and come back to re-visit it in 6 months.
One huge difference between the western culture and the way the Russians (or the Chinese for that matter) look at geostrategy is that westerners always look at everything in the short term and tactical level. This is basically the single main reason why both Napoleon and Hitler lost their wars against Russia: an almost exclusive focus on the short term and tactical. In contrast, the Russians are the undisputed masters of operational art (in a purely military sense) and, just like the Chinese, they tend to always keep their eyes on the long-term horizon. Just look at the Turkish downing of a Russian Su-24: everybody bemoaned the lack of “forceful” reaction from Moscow. And then, six months later – what do we have? Exactly.
The modern western culture is centered on various forms of instant gratification, and that is also true for geopolitics. If the other guy does something, western leaders always deliver a “firm” response. They like to “send messages” and they firmly believe that doing something, no matter how symbolic, is better than even the appearance of doing nothing. As for the appearance of doing nothing, it is universally interpreted as a sign of weakness. Russians don’t think that way. They don’t care about instant gratification, they care only about one thing: victory. And if that means to look weak, that is fine. From a Russian perspective, sending “messages” or taking symbolic actions (like all 4 of the recent US attacks in Syria) are not signs of strength, but signs of weakness. Generally, the Russians don’t like to use force which they consider inherently dangerous. But when they do, they never threaten or warn, they take immediate and pragmatic (non-symbolic) action which gets them closer to a specific goal.