For the first time in 70 years, U.S. and Russian bombers are flying in the same skies, but it remains to be seen whether they are on the same side as they were in World War II.
While Moscow’s allies have flown Russian-made planes in more recent conflicts, from Vietnam to Iraq and Iran, the direct entry of the Kremlin’s air force into the messy Syrian civil war marks a new chapter in U.S.-Russian relations.
That chapter is starting with the two countries cooperating to de-conflict their airstrikes, but the rest of the story could go sour quickly given Moscow’s support for a repressive Syrian government that America says must go.
At a Pentagon briefing hours after the Russian bombing raids began, Defense Secretary Ash Carter was like a traffic cop whistling for cars to stop while motioning them forward.
“Russia states an intent to fight ISIL on the one hand, and to support the Bashar Assad regime on the other,” Carter said, using the U.S. acronym for the Islamic State.
“Fighting ISIL without pursuing a parallel political transition only risks escalating the civil war in Syria – and with it, the very extremism and instability that Moscow claims to be concerned about and aspire to fighting,” Carter said.
Claiming that there was “a logical contradiction in the Russian position,” Carter said it makes no sense for Moscow to go after the Islamic State while backing a regime that has killed tens of thousands of people, and one which large numbers of Syrians hate.
Two days after Russian President Vladimir Putin evoked the World War II Allied forces by urging “an anti-Hitler” coalition against the Islamic State, there were contradictory if not confusing behavior and statements from his countrymen in Moscow and Syria.
Maj. Gen. Igor Koneshenkov, a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, said his country’s first raids in Syria were aimed at Islamic State militants.
“Today Russian aircraft carried out precise strikes against eight ISIL terror group targets on the territory of Syria,” he said. “About 20 sorties were flown.”
Responding to the Islamic State’s social media prowess, the Defense Ministry even posted a video purporting to show bombs exploding in Syria. It said the raids had hit Islamic State command posts, communications centers, fuel depots and ammunition armories in what it described as “surgical strikes.”
But the view on the ground in Syria was peculiarly at odds with the Russian claims.
Syrian opposition fighters, among them some that have been supported by U.S. airstrikes, said there were no Islamic State combatants anywhere close to where Russian bombs hit villages and countryside outside Homs, an industrial hub in western Syria and the country’s third-largest city.
American assertions carried their own contradictions.
Carter sharply criticized a Russian general who appeared at the U.S. Embassy in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad and informed the American diplomats that his country’s bombing in Syria would commence in one hour.
“This is not the kind of behavior that we should expect professionally from the Russian military,” Carter said.
At the same time, however, the Pentagon chief said the Russians’ airstrikes hadn’t taken him by surprise in the least because the Kremlin had been signaling its intentions for weeks.
“They’re exceptionally clear about what they’re saying, and their actions now seem to reflect what they said they were going to do,” Carter said. “So my problem isn’t that I don’t understand what they’re doing. I think my problem is that I think what they’re doing is going to backfire and is counterproductive.”
Carter said the Russian airstrikes in Syria would not create problems for the U.S.-led bombing raids.
“We intend to continue our air operations unimpeded,” he said.
But while touting its effort to train and equip Syrians to combat the Islamic State, the United States continues to exclude recruits who also want to fight Assad, a policy that, following more than 50 months of civil war, eliminates most would-be participants in the American program.
While President George W. Bush was accused of rashness in overthrowing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein without having reliable leaders to replace him, his successor today stands charged with timidity in refusing to topple Assad.
“Weakness is provocative,” railed Rep. Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican and senior member of the house Armed Services Committee.
“Whether it’s a KGB thug like Vladimir Putin or (Iranian leader) Ayatollah Khamenei, our adversaries are preying on the weakness that the Obama administration projects around the world,” Franks said.
Carter held out the hope that Moscow and Washington will iron out their differences and unite around the common cause of defeating radical Islamists, just as they united around defeating the Nazis seven-plus decades ago.
After speaking with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu last week, Carter said Wednesday that he had directed his top aides to start military-to-military talks with their Russian counterparts in personal meetings in the coming days.
“They have indicated for quite some time they were going to begin conducting air operations (in Syria), and we have agreed for quite some time that we were going to get these talks under way just as soon as we could agree mutually on a place and a time,” Carter said. “We’ve agreed upon that now. Those will get under way within days. And I think they’ll be very constructive.”
But the Pentagon chief warned Moscow against viewing the cooperation in Syria as a sign of American appeasement elsewhere in the world.
“As we pursue the defense-level talks with Russia on Syria, I want to be absolutely clear that these talks will not, in any way, diminish our strong condemnation of Russian aggression in Ukraine, or change our sanctions and security support (for Ukraine) in response to those destabilizing actions,” Carter said.
James Rosen: 202-383-0014; @jamesmartinrose