In a dangerous escalation of the Syrian crisis, Russia launched airstrikes Wednesday on what it claimed were Islamic State targets, but which appeared to hit moderate U.S.-backed opponents of the Syrian government, directly challenging U.S. credibility in the conflict.
Moscow’s actions are certain to stoke Cold War-like tensions between the United States and Russia and, in the near term, bolster the embattled Syrian army. It also would seem to give the Kremlin the upper hand in influencing the course of the conflict and diplomatic efforts to end it.
In the longer run, Moscow’s intervention also risks unifying the disparate non-Islamic State opposition against Russian forces, miring the Kremlin in Syria’s bloody civil war – reminiscent of its 1979-89 occupation of Afghanistan – and intensifying the violence and instability convulsing the Middle East.
“We are prepared to confront the Russian occupation,” Khaled Khoja, the head of the main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian Opposition Coalition, declared at a news conference at U.N. headquarters.
Given the military challenge he faces, President Vladimir Putin “is playing a weak hand very well,” said Donald Jensen, a former U.S. diplomat who served in Moscow who is now a fellow at Johns Hopkins University Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. “Putin conveys the impression that he is stronger than he really is.”
Moscow announced that its airstrikes struck eight Islamic State targets after the Russian Parliament authorized Putin to intervene in Syria and shortly before Russia assumed the presidency of the U.N. Security Council with a debate on terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said that the attacks avoided hitting “civilian infrastructure.”
“Today, Russian air force jets delivered pinpoint strikes on eight ISIS terror group targets in Syria. In total, 20 flights were made,” Konashenkov said, referring to the Islamic State by a common acronym.
But Syrian opposition groups, a U.S. lawmaker and independent experts disputed Moscow’s announcement, saying that the attacks were directed at moderate rebel groups, including some backed by the United States.
“Despite Russia’s stated purpose of defending Syria against ISIL militants, it’s alarming that the first set of strikes appear to have targeted the Syrian opposition fighting against the brutal dictatorship of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., a member of the Senate armed services and foreign relations committees. ISIL is the Obama administration’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State.
The charges that the Islamic State wasn’t targeted were backed up by geolocation data contained in videos of an airstrike released by the Russian Defense Ministry. The data showed that the attack took place in Latamneh, an opposition-controlled town in north-central Hama province, where the savage Islamic State has no known presence.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told a Pentagon news conference that the Islamic State didn’t appear to have been struck, but he declined to say whether the Russians bombed U.S.-backed rebel groups or others that are fighting the Assad regime.
“It does appear that they (the Russian airstrikes) were in areas where there were probably no ISIL forces, and that’s precisely the problem with Russia’s approach,” Carter said, using the U.S. government’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest denied that the Russian operations had taken the administration by surprise, but he said it hadn’t determined what they’d targeted.
Khoja, the opposition leader, said that the Russian strikes hit five areas from which moderate groups drove Islamic State militants last year, and that at least 36 civilians were killed.
The strike on the Al Izza Brigade in Latamneh posed the most direct challenge to Obama, who will be under pressure to decide whether to provide defensive weaponry, such as anti-air missiles, to the rebel group or abandon it to its fate.
Abandoning the group would deal a fresh slap to U.S. credibility, which suffered major blows after Obama failed to make good on a vow to bomb regime chemical weapons and pursued policies that have done little to end the more than four-year-old war that has killed some 250,000 people and uprooted half the population of 11 million.
A $500 million program to train and arm moderate rebels to fight the Islamic State – but not Assad – has all but collapsed and hundreds of thousands of Syrians are among the tidal wave of refugees washing into Europe.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State, bolstered by tens of thousands of foreign extremists, continue to control huge swaths of a self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria, despite more than 7,000 airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition of some 60 nations.
In a less known U.S. program, thousands of Syrian fighters affiliated with moderate rebel groups continue to receive arms, ammunition through a CIA-administered covert aid program, supported by other countries in a “friends of Syria” group.
Putin appeared to be exploiting the beleaguered U.S. policy in deciding to deploy in recent weeks 32 jetfighters, tanks, armored personnel carriers, marines and limited numbers of special forces at an airport outside Latakia, a city on the coastal strip that is a stronghold of the Alawite sect that dominates the regime.
Putin has said that the deployment is intended to target the Islamic State. But Wednesday’s strike suggested it was aimed at bolstering the Assad government, which has suffered setbacks both in the fight against the Islamic State and against other rebel groups.
Four towns targeted by Russian aircraft were located in a rebel-controlled area under that is completely surrounded by regime forces, according to anti-Assad activists and other witnesses. The towns are Telbisa, Al Zafraniya, Al Rastan and Al Makaramah.
The front lines in this region have been frozen for nearly three years, and ending rebel control would strengthen the regime’s hold on the key cities of Homs and Hama, and safeguard the coastal areas, which would form the nucleus of a mini-state to which Assad and his supporters could retreat.
Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency senior analyst, said that the strikes also appeared aimed at re-establishing regime control over the strategic highway linking Hama and the capital, Damascus.
“As far as I can see, they (the Russian strikes) were trying to shore up the Damascus-Hama lines of communications,” he said.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said that Russia had notified the United States through a diplomat in Baghdad about an hour before the strikes that the bombing would begin. The exact details of the message were not known.
The U.N. Security Council was suffused by the deep international divisions over Syria that have hampered a unified approach to peace, with Syria and Iran lining up behind Russia and European and Arab states aligning with the United States and its demand that Assad leave power.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia launched the strikes at Assad’s request and insisted that they were aimed “exclusively” against the Islamic State.
He called on the United States and other counties to cooperate in fighting the extremist group, and said that Russia was ready to establish “standing channels of coordination” with Washington.
Russia, he said, would submit a draft U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the creation of an international anti-terrorism coalition – which would include Syria and Iran – that would take “collective action” against the Islamic State.
In their addresses to the council, U.S., European and Sunni Muslim Arab officials made it clear that they opposed Moscow’s proposal.
“The answer to the Syrian civil war cannot be found in a military alliance with Assad,” said Kerry.
Washington, he said, is ready open talks this week with Moscow on establishing a communications channel to ensure that there are no inadvertent entanglements between U.S. and Russian aircraft.
But he warned Russia against militarily propping up Assad.
Hannah Allam at the United Nations, McClatchy special correspondent Mitchell Prothero in Irbil, Iraq, and Lesley Clark and James Rosen in Washington contributed to this report. Landay reported from the United Nations and Gutman reported from Istanbul, Turkey.
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