Is Putin playing West for a fool in Syria?

Story highlights

  • As world powers agree to "cessation of hostilities, Matthew Chance asks if Russia has successfully played the West again?
  • He says Russia may be helping Syrian forces to advance, but in the long run, it may find it harder

Moscow (CNN)It's not quite a ceasefire, more a "cessation of hostilities," explained U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

But for the Russians, the agreement brokered in Munich to halt the fighting in Syria is neither.
    "Despite these accords, Russia will continue its counter-terrorism operation of the air task force," Vladmir Dzhabarov, deputy chairman of the Russian International Affairs Committee, told state media.
    Diplomats agree to 'cessation of hostilities' in Syria
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      Diplomats agree to 'cessation of hostilities' in Syria


    Diplomats agree to 'cessation of hostilities' in Syria 02:41
    The agreement relates "only to the warring groupings," he went on, "not to terrorists on the territory of Syria."
    Russia therefore believes its airstrikes in Aleppo are not included, nor are attacks against what Moscow calls terrorist targets across Syria.
    It is a glaring hole in the "cessation" to say the least.
    Russian air power is now ferociously pounding the areas of Aleppo, Syria's biggest city, still under rebel control.
    According to the Russian defense ministry, 510 combat sorties were carried out across Syria by its warplanes last week alone, many of them focused on supporting Syrian troop advances aimed an encircling Aleppo.
    The defense ministry reports engaging 1,888 "terrorist objects." There's been no indication that pace of strikes, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee their homes, is set to decrease.

    Is victory even possible?

    On the ground, the result is straightforward. The Syrian Army, backed by the Russian air force and fighting alongside Iranian militia and other groups, is making substantial gains.
    It is, in other words, winning.
    Syrian refugees are stranded as Russian airstrikes advance
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      Syrian refugees are stranded as Russian airstrikes advance


    Syrian refugees are stranded as Russian airstrikes advance 02:46
    That's not a word Western diplomats like to use, or even hear, when it comes to Russia, Syria or President Bashar al-Assad.
    At a recent embassy briefing, one senior diplomat questioned the very idea of any victory being possible in Syria's quagmire.
    And the diplomat may be right. Russia's intervention has turned the tables, saved al-Assad, and restored Moscow's self-image as a great power.
    But Russian President Vladimir Putin's end-game remains unclear.
    How will al-Assad's forces, for instance, hang on to the territory they are so quickly seizing from the rebels?
    Without the continued, indefinite and extremely costly backing of Russian air power, government forces may be too weak to maintain control.
    After all, it's the reason al-Assad lost the territory in the first place.
    It all points back to the old criticism of the Russian president one western diplomat told me recently.
    "A master tactician, but a poor strategist," the diplomat said.
    We shall see.