Russia Starts Bombing Syria, Tells Pentagon to Step Aside
Moscow backs up Bashar Al Assad
Updated Sept. 30, 1:50 p.m. EST
Russian warplanes are bombing targets in Syria. But despite a flood of reports to the contrary, Moscow insists the attacks will be limited and only target Islamic State.
On Sept. 30, the upper house of the Duma – Russia’s parliament – approved Pres. Vladimir Putin’s request to use force in the embattled Middle Eastern country. Within hours, the Kremlin’s growing aerial armada hit areas near the cities of Hama and Homs, among other locations, according to a tweet from Michael Horowitz, an analyst with the United Kingdom-based Levantine Group.
“In accordance with the decision by Supreme Commander of Russian Armed Forces Vladimir Putin, aircraft from the Russian Aerospace Force began today an operation which involves precision airstrikes on Islamic State land-based targets in Syria,” Russian defense ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov confirmed, according to the state-run Sputnik news agency.
“Russia is not planning to go headfirst into the Syrian conflict,” Putin said.
But it’s clear that the Kremlin is already deeply invested in the conflict … and not against Islamic State. By attacking around Hama and Homs, Russia has made it clear what the mission really is — keep the Syrian regime in power.
“Russia probably had serious concerns about the ability of the Assad regime to hold on to what it still has, much less to recapture lost territory,” Paul Schwartz, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, had told War Is Boring in an email.
“Moscow could not discount the possibility of a collapse of the Assad forces, which would result in the elimination of Russia’s principal partner in the region.”
Hama and Homs are where some of the first protests against the Syrian government erupted four years ago. Islamic State has little, if any, influence in these areas. Buzzfeed quickly highlighted the discrepancy in Moscow’s claims:
The areas targeted were mostly strongholds of Jaish al-Fatah, a coalition of rebel groups that includes the Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, but also the popular Ahrar al-Sham, a hardline Islamist rebel group backed by Turkey and Qatar. All the targets were far to the west of ISIS strongholds in eastern and northeastern Syria, but key to protecting Assad’s dominion in the country’s northwest and the capital, Damascus.
“It means that Russia is really in Syria to defend its own interest,” said Horowitz. “These are targets meant to protect the northern coast where Russia has has a naval base, and they’re not there to target ISIS.”
In fact, within the complex strategic calculus of Syria’s civil war, the air strikes against Jaish al-Fatah could actually strengthen ISIS; both moderate and Islamist rebel groups fight ISIS as well as the Syrian regime.
Of course, none of this is particularly surprising. Since August, Russia had already dramatically increased its support to Syrian Pres. Bashar Al Assad. This all came to a head earlier in September, when dozens of Russian fighter-bombers and ground attack planes first appeared on the runway at Al Assad International Airport – which doubles as a Syrian air force base – in Latakia province.
On top of that, Iraq recently cut a deal with Russia and Iran to share intelligence on militant groups. Moscow’s jets zoomed through the Caspian Sea and then through Iranian and Iraqi airspace to get to Syria, according to a report from military aerospace blog The Aviationist.
And in the middle of its own bombing campaign in the country, the Pentagon has been scrambling to figure out just what was going on with the Kremlin’s new forces in the region. Despite apparent reassurances, Russian authorities gave American commanders little notice of the impending strikes and effectively told the Western coalition to stay away from Syria.
A report from Fox News summed up the dismay in Washington over the strikes:
According to a U.S. senior official, Presidents Obama and Putin agreed on a process to “deconflict” military operations. The Russians on Wednesday “bypassed that process,” the official said.
“That’s not how responsible nations do business,” the official said.
The development came after Pentagon officials, in a development first reported by Fox News, brushed aside an official request, or “demarche,” from Russia to clear air space over northern Syria, where Moscow said it intended to conduct airstrikes against ISIS on behalf of Assad, according to sources who spoke to Fox News. The request was made in a heated discussion between a Russian three-star general and U.S. officials at the American Embassy in Baghdad, sources said.
“If you have forces in the area we request they leave,” said the general, who used the word “please” in the contentious encounter.
A senior Pentagon official said the U.S., which also has been conducting airstrikes against ISIS, but does not support Assad, said the request was not honored.
“We still conducted our normal strike operations in Syria today,” the official said. “We did not and have not changed our operations.”
State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters the Russian airstrikes won’t change the strategy of the U.S.-led coalition.
The Pentagon appeared to be particularly embarrassed by the turn of events.
“[Defense] Secretary Carter directed his staff to open lines of communication with Russia on de-confliction,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook told reporters right at the start of his briefing on Sept. 29. “We expect the details of those conversations, including the exact timing of those conversations, will be worked out in the coming days.“
Apparently, those conversations consisted of a last-minute phone call telling American commanders to get out of the Kremlin’s way.
Update — the Russian Ministry of Defense released this video depicting two air strikes in Syria. The Kremlin stated the strikes targeted “the international terrorist organization ISIS.”