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Russia, Putin Take the Offensive, Set the Agenda in Syria

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Message Michael Payne

Syria has become a convoluted mess, a deepening quagmire. As this conflict intensifies it seems as if there are several wars going on at the same time.

In the first, it's the Syrian rebel forces and ISIS versus Syrian government troops and President Assad who they are determined to remove. ISIS still controls the largest part of the country but is being subjected to relentless bombing by various nations.

Then we have the U.S. and some of its allies pursuing a dual objective; they want to take Assad out of power but they also want to destroy the ISIS terrorists. Saudi Arabia and Qatar appear to be far more interested in removing Assad than they are in destroying ISIS.

And if this was not complicated enough Russia arrived on the scene at the invitation of Assad to take the fight to ISIS and the Syrian rebels. Working with Russia, Iranian, Hezbollah and Syrian forces are conducting a ground campaign while Russia supports them with air power.

Here's what Putin has done that indicates that he is beginning to set the agenda in Syria:

Initially he sent Russian military advisers to Syria and soon after, air power consisting of bombers and jet fighters; he then initiated a bombing campaign against Assad's enemies. Russia and the U.S. and its allies entered into an agreement to see that their aircraft would maintain at least a 20-mile separation in the air space over that country.

Putin had been recommending that the major powers enter into negotiations to find ways to bring this situation under control, to bring various nations together to fight ISIS, and to try to determine how to eventually end the conflict. His various overtures were rejected several times but, subsequently, the Vienna talks for coordinating efforts in Syria were launched with representatives of 20 countries participating.

After Turkey shot down a Russian bomber which it said had violated its air space, Putin didn't react with immediate retaliation but, instead, took steps to bring in Russia's highly sophisticated S-400 air defense systems to combat any subsequent threatening actions by Turkey.

Headline: "Russia, France Band Together." In mid-November, French President Hollande and Putin pledged to join together in the fight against ISIS. That surprising meeting between France, a member of NATO, and Russia has raised some eyebrows and I'd venture to guess that it is not sitting well with the U.S. and some of its other allies.

President Erdogan of Turkey is playing with fire as he dares to try to intimidate the Russian Bear. It's becoming clear that when Turkey shot down the Russian plane it really wasn't because of a violation of air space but, rather, because Russia had been bombing rebel jihadists who were supporting Turkey in its quest to remove Assad from power. And that infuriated Erdogan.

Putin has also responded by accusing Turkey and Erdogan of acting in collusion with the ISIS jihadists. These allegations against them stem from the fact that ISIS now controls large oilfields in both Syria and Iraq which are generating substantial funding for its operations. Large convoys of trucks are transporting a great deal of that oil throughout Syria, with some of it moving across the Syrian border into Turkish territory. Erdogan strongly denies that this is happening but Putin is adamant that it is and, apparently, Hollande agrees with him. There is growing evidence that Erdogan's son Bilal, part owner of a marine transportation corporation, is heavily involved in this oil traffic.

Putin and Hollande have indicated that their countries will cooperate in conducting massive air strikes against these truck convoys. Those strikes will also be aimed at any other trucks which are suspected of containing weaponry that could be destined for use by ISIS forces.

This sudden confrontation between Russia and Turkey which started with the downing of the Russian bomber can, with these latest developments, easily escalate and that could be disastrous. A relevant question might be; while all this added danger and intrigue is going on where are the U.S. and President Obama? Silence seems to rule.

A great many things going on in Syria do not pass the smell test. Turkey's apparent collusion with ISIS is certainly one of them. Also while it has not been greatly publicized it's no secret that both Saudi Arabia and Qatar want Assad out of the way so they can run Qatar's gas pipeline through Syria; and they have been suspected of funding and colluding with both the Syrian rebels and ISIS.

Getting back to Putin and his expanded role in Syria; Putin is largely considered to be a tyrant and some sort of despot in America but in many parts of the world he is gaining respect because of his measured, increasingly effective strategy in Syria. But whether he should be respected or vilified, is not the issue right now; how to end this conflict in Syria is.

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