The two things one needs to keep in mind about how Vladimir Putin operates is that he is regionally oriented, that is, his focus is mainly on Russia and the former constituent republics of the USSR and he is an opportunist. Putin is less likely to initiate an action than he is to find a way to capitalize on an organic action within his realm of influence.

For a long time, the Russian adventure in Syria looked like a no-brainer. He sent air defense and air force elements to create a shield over the Syrian regime. He forced the US to work with Russian air defense commanders to launch strikes in defense of our allies. This gave him prestige in the region. He was a prime mover in gulling Obama on the Iran nuclear deal and Iran was a major player in Syria. Ham-handed US diplomacy combined with Erdogan’s al-Qaeda-lite Islamism pushed Turkey away from NATO and towards Russia. Suddenly, for virtually no cost, Putin saw a historic Russian dream realized. A friendly nation would own the Dardanelles and Bosporus. Basing rights for the Russian navy were available at the Syrian naval base of Latakia. The Israelis and Palestinians were beginning to look to Moscow as an honest broker in negotiations.

So long as a civil war raged in Syria, things were going well for Putin. But there’s always the falling out among thieves to contend with.

Iran is not interested in playing second fiddle to anyone and has fantasies of a sweeping arc of Shia real estate stretching from Iran through Iraq and on to the Mediterranean. Iran has accused the Russians of giving the IFF codes to its own air defense systems to the Israelis to allow them to strike targets in Lebanon and Syria which are defended by Russian anti-aircraft systems. This accusation has made the position of Russia a lot less secure.

Far from driving the train in Syria, Russia is finding itself becoming the equivalent of a human shield. It has invested its prestige in the outcome but the conduct of the war is being driven by Tehran which increasingly directs the efforts of the Syrian army as well as of Hezbollah. Tehran can instigate whatever atrocities it wishes because it is nearly impervious to Western sensibilities. Russia gets the stink to the atrocities and has to defend them in order to keep its place on the team.

Several things have happened today that bear watching:

First, a debate is underway in the UN Security Council and, led by Nikki Haley, the French and British are giving the Russians to understand that they hold Russia accountable for the chemical weapons strike earlier in the week. A vote will be held later today on a resolution requiring a full-scale investigation of the attack. Historically, Russia has vetoed these resolutions.

Earlier this morning this was tweeted by the AP:

And now it looks like Russia is going to vote to allow the investigation:

and

Syria may have overplayed its hand with Russia. As I said yesterday, it is hard to believe that the Russians had advanced knowledge of this. If they wanted a provocation to test Trump there are a lot of things they could have done that would not cause Russia’s major trading partners to recoil in horror. This was a major in-your-face act that seems more of an attempt by Assad to tell the Russians that he’ll do as he pleases if it wasn’t the action of an independent actor or actors within the Syrian armed forces who were reacting to a local tactical problem without any concern for the big picture.

At some point, Putin is going to declare his mission accomplished and it is time to leave. Syria is rapidly transitioning from a cheap way of screwing with Obama into something that is damaging Russia’s credibility.