Russian Bombs in Syria Trigger Aftershocks at the United Nations

Obama and his allies want Moscow to bomb the Islamic State, not Assad’s opponents. Putin’s not listening yet.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 28:  Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, 
sits with the Russian delegates at the United Nations General Assembly on September 28, 2015 in New York City. The ongoing war in Syria and the refugee crisis it has spawned are playing a backdrop to this years  70th annual General Assembly meeting of global leaders.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 28: Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, sits with the Russian delegates at the United Nations General Assembly on September 28, 2015 in New York City. The ongoing war in Syria and the refugee crisis it has spawned are playing a backdrop to this years 70th annual General Assembly meeting of global leaders. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Early Wednesday, a Russian official walked into the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and told American officials that Russian aircraft would begin hitting targets in Syria within the hour. The bombs soon started to fall, sharply escalating Moscow’s military involvement in the Syrian fight, overshadowing the last day of the United Nations General Assembly session, and forcing President Barack Obama’s administration to confront a welter of thorny tactical and strategic choices.

In the most immediate sense, U.S. military planners must now take into account the presence of Russian warplanes operating in close proximity to coalition aircraft, which have been hitting Islamic State targets for the past year. While there is no coordination between U.S. and Russian aircraft, the Russian general who visited the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad asked that the coalition keep out of Syrian airspace during Russian bombing runs. The Americans declined.

But with Russia now sharing intelligence with the Iraqis, Syrians, and Iranians from a newly formed operations center in Baghdad, Washington and Moscow must resolve larger divides over the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the flailing fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Washington has cobbled together a 62-nation coalition devoted to battling the Islamic State, and America’s allies, most recently France, have bombed Islamic State targets in both Iraq and Syria. The United States, however, has conducted the vast bulk of the strikes, which have done little to loosen the militants’ grip on broad areas of Iraq and Syria. Washington also insists that Assad give up power as part of any political solution to Syria’s grinding civil war, which has killed or displaced more than 11 million people.

Moscow has a vastly different set of ideas for defeating the militants, and Russian President Vladimir Putin and his top deputies outlined it at length during this week’s U.N. summit. In his remarks to the U.N. General Assembly, Putin said Washington’s efforts are failing and said Western nations needed to partner with Assad to fight the Islamic State rather than continue working to unseat him. Moscow also wants to closely coordinate its battle against the Islamic State with Tehran, a step the United States has been unwilling to take.

American and European officials, however, were quick to note that the initial wave of Russian strikes targeted U.S.-backed groups battling Assad, not targets linked to the Islamic State. The strikes appear to have struck a rebel group likely trained and equipped by the CIA and part of a coalition of militias that has been battling the Assad regime.

The Obama administration has steadily maintained that Moscow’s efforts to prop up Assad will merely add fuel to the political instability and chaos that first gave rise to the Islamic State, undercutting any Russian push to defeat the militants militarily.

Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said it appeared Russia was bombing targets “in areas where there probably were not ISIL forces,” using an alternate name for the Islamic State militants. Carter said that “there is a logical contradiction” in Putin’s position that he is fighting the Islamic State by supporting Assad. Such action only risks escalating the war, since “a lasting defeat of ISIL and extremism in Syria can only be achieved in parallel with a political transition in Syria” and “we believe that at least some parts of the anti-Assad opposition belong as part of the political transition going forward.”

When it comes to Moscow sticking to bombing the Islamic State-related targets that it claims to be targeting, Carter said, “I take the Russians at their word.”

Looming in the background is the debate among Western policymakers about Putin’s strategic acumen, with some seeing him as outwitting Obama on Syria and Ukraine and others criticizing him as a leader who simply shifts from one crisis to the next, playing the hand he has been dealt without much thought of how the moves fit together.

“If he’s a strategist, he’s not a particularly good one, because I can’t think of how any of his moves in the last two years have enhanced Russia’s position in the world,” said Derek Chollet, who served as U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs from 2012 to early 2015.

The deepening Russian involvement in the Syrian conflict shouldn’t come as a surprise, however. Moscow maintains its only overseas military base at Tartus in Syria; the base houses 1,700 Russian troops and gives Russian ships a home base in the Mediterranean, allowing Moscow a much greater forward presence than it would have otherwise.

Since the end of the Cold War, Moscow has forced its way into a series of international crisis situations in order to prove its continued relevance. In 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev sent diplomat Yevgeny Primakov to shuttle among Moscow, Baghdad, and Washington in an attempt to avoid the coalition’s invasion of Kuwait to evict Saddam Hussein, a role Primakov would reprise in March 2003 for Putin, again failing to prevent war.

In 1999, stung by Russia’s exclusion from the peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, Russian President Boris Yeltsin sent 200 troops to the Pristina airport — almost sparking a shootout with NATO troops nearby. And in 2013, Putin saved Obama from a military confrontation that the U.S. president plainly did not want by crafting a deal under which Damascus relinquished all of its chemical weapons in exchange for Washington holding off on the airstrikes Obama had promised after Assad violated a U.S. “red line” and used chemical weapons against his own people.

Chollet, who is now a senior advisor at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said Putin’s involvement in Syria — especially if it intensifies — could prove trickier for Putin than some of his other overseas adventures. Low oil prices and Western sanctions have hit the Russian economy hard, and in addition to the costly occupation of Crimea — Putin has deployed 25,000 Russian troops there — the Russian leader will now need to find the money to keep long-distance air and sea supply lines open to ensure that Russian warplanes and helicopters can keep flying with their ground crews and pilots protected and fed.

As the Russian bombs began falling in Syria, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov presided over a high-level meeting of the Security Council in New York, where he sought a U.N. imprimatur for Russia’s military operations in Syria.

Addressing a skeptical audience of world powers, Lavrov detailed a proposal to fashion a U.N.-backed diplomatic and military coalition to take on the Islamic State. Lavrov said he plans to circulate a U.N. Security Council draft resolution that calls for the coordination of forces that are willing “to stand up against the Islamic State,” he said.

Russia, he said, has informed the United States and other key powers that it is prepared to “forge standing channels of communications” to ensure effectiveness of international air operations against the Islamic State.

The initiative is part of a broader diplomatic push by Russia to prod the United States into granting Tehran and Damascus a central role in the international coalition against the Islamic State. In recent weeks, Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have expressed a willingness to work with Iran — which along with Russia has provided extensive military backing to Assad — to resolve the crisis in Syria. But the United States says that any stable political settlement in Syria will require Assad to step aside.

More practically, Russian officers will be stationed at a new intelligence-sharing facility in Baghdad that will also include personnel from Iran, Iraq, and Syria. The Sunday announcement from Iraqi officials appeared to take American officials by surprise, and U.S. officials also seemed uncertain about how to respond to the initial wave of Russian airstrikes into Syria.

For now, Washington and its allies are publicly and privately urging Putin to ensure that he strikes the Islamic State, not the groups — many backed by the West — working to force Assad from power.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, for instance, said Wednesday that Paris would welcome Russian strikes against the Islamic State or other extremist groups. But first, he said, “it must be verified that it was really Daesh and terrorist groups [that were struck], not those who are opposed to the Syrian regime,” using an alternate name for the Islamic State.

Kerry and Lavrov met Wednesday evening to continue discussions over Russia’s action in Syria. Speaking after the discussion, Kerry said he had expressed concerns that the United States has about the “nature of the targets” Russia struck in Syria. “It is one thing obviously to be targeting ISIL; the concern obviously is that is not what is happening.”

So far, though, there is little sign that Putin is listening: The first known strikes took place in areas controlled by the Syrian opposition, not the Islamic State. Syrian opposition leaders said Wednesday that a Russian strike killed 36 civilians, including five children, in an area that had long been free of the militants.

“The Syrian National Coalition condemns in the strongest language the Russian aggression against the Syrian people today in Homs and in the suburbs,” Najib Ghadbian, the coalition’s U.S. representative, said at a news conference at U.N. headquarters. He said the coalition demands that the international community “take all necessary measures to stop this aggression and prevent further attacks against civilians.”

“The Russian claim that they are there to fight ISIS is a baseless claim, and that was proven today,” Ghadbian added. “They are there to uphold a regime that lost its legitimacy and only controls 14 percent of the land in Syria.”

Asked to comment on reports of civilian casualties, Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, told a group of reporters at the U.N. that the reports of 36 dead were part of a misinformation campaign.

The Syrian coalition’s casualty claims, she said, “were published even before the airstrike began.”

On Twitter, France’s outspoken ambassador to the United States, Gérard Araud, minced no words. Russia, he wrote, “is bombing the rebels fighting Assad not ISIS. Russia used ISIS as a pretext for supporting a weakened Assad.”

Photo credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch