Since US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s meeting with President Putin yesterday, and since the joint press conference between Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov which followed shortly after, there have been numerous media reports which say that President Putin heeded Tillerson’s request to reinstate the hotline between the US and Russian militaries in Syria, and that as a result this hotline is back in operation.
This is quite simply wrong. It arises from a poor translation of certain comments Foreign Minister Lavrov made at the joint news conference.
The Russian Foreign Ministry has now published an official translation of Lavrov’s comments at the news conference, and this should be treated as both definitive and authoritative. It reads as follows
We also discussed the actions of the Russian Aerospace Forces and the US-led coalition in the context of the existing Memorandum on the Prevention of Incidents and Ensuring Flight Safety in Syria. As you know, Russia has suspended the Memorandum. Today Russian President Putin reaffirmed our readiness to resume compliance with the Memorandum provided there is a clear understanding of the main aims pursued by the US-led coalition air forces and the Russian Aerospace Forces, namely, the fight against ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other associated terrorist groups.
(bold italics added)
In other words – at least as of the time when Lavrov was speaking – the hotline was still suspended, with Putin making its reinstatement conditional upon US undertakings that the US military would henceforth attack only “ISIS, Jabhat Al-Nusra (ie. Al-Qaeda) and other associated terrorist groups” and not the Syrian military.
This affair of the hotline has been barely reported by the establishment media, which has also barely reported the dramatic effect its suspension is having on US air operations in Syria. However in combination with the presence of Russian air defence missiles in Syria it has enabled the Russians to respond to the US missile strike in a way that is both discrete and powerful, avoiding the risk of a dangerous escalation whilst clearly and forcefully making Russia’s point.
The US urgently needs to resume its air offensive against ISIS at full strength, and for that reason it will want the hotline reinstated as soon as possible. The Russians for their part know that if they continue to keep the hotline suspended for too long the point will come when the US will be forced – if only to save face – to resume its air operations in Syria at full force, even though the hotline remains suspended, and even if this risks an armed clash with the Russians.
Both sides therefore have a strong incentive to de-escalate.
It is therefore a certainty the US is giving the Russians the assurances they are demanding – indeed Trump, Tillerson and McMaster have all done so publicly – and it is a certainty the Russians will before long pretend to accept these assurances, and will switch the hotline back on.
Conceivably, in the hours since Lavrov spoke, this might already have happened. As I have said previously, switching off the hotline is intended as much as a warning to the US by the Russians as anything else, and the Russians will not press their luck too far once they are sure the US has heeded it.
However it is highly unlikely the Russians will accept whatever assurances the US is giving them at face value.
Last week the US showed that it could change its entire Syrian policy at the drop of a hat, and there is no assurance it will not do so again regardless of whatever assurances the Trump administration is now giving the Russians.
Over the next few weeks the Russians will therefore quietly take further steps to strengthen Syria’s air defences to increase the risks for the US of any further US strikes on Syria. They have already said they will do this, and there is no doubt that they will.