The Crowded Skies: Russian, U.S. Planes Pound Syria
Russia escalated its new air war in Syria, carrying out at least eight strikes Thursday. Exactly what the planes hit, however, remains very much in dispute. Speaking from Baghdad, Army Col. Steve Warren, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, told reporters that while “the Russians were very clear publicly they were going to strike ...
Russia escalated its new air war in Syria, carrying out at least eight strikes Thursday. Exactly what the planes hit, however, remains very much in dispute.
Speaking from Baghdad, Army Col. Steve Warren, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, told reporters that while “the Russians were very clear publicly they were going to strike ISIL, we don’t believe that they stuck ISIL targets, and that’s a problem,” using an alternate name for the militant group.
Russia has said it is focusing on the Islamic State, but Moscow’s top diplomat acknowledged Thursday that his country is striking other groups as well. During a session with reporters at the United Nations Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow was targeting “ISIL, Nusra and other groups,” a reference to an al Qaeda affiliate in Syria that has battled the Islamic State. Asked to elaborate on what he meant by “other groups,” Lavrov said: “If it looks like a terrorist, if it acts like a terrorist, if it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist, it’s a terrorist, right?”
The Russian, known for his sharp tongue, was just getting started. When a reporter asked if Russia was planning to also strike targets inside Iraq, Lavrov said: “No, we are not planning to expand our air strikes to Iraq. We were not invited, we were not asked, and we are a polite people as you know, [so] we don’t come if we are not invited.”
The comments weren’t enough to tamp down the simmering concern in Washington that Russia is using the Islamic State as a pretext for bombing the rebel groups working to unseat Assad, including some forces armed and trained by the United States. Sen. John McCain (R-Az.) told CNN’s Chris Cuomo Thursday he has information that can “absolutely confirm” the first round of Russian strikes hit the “Free Syrian Army or groups that have been armed and trained by the CIA.”
Activist groups on the ground in Syria have also said the Russians have hit anti-Assad rebels in areas where there is no Islamic State presence.
Thousands of miles from the battlefield, Russia also circulated a draft U.N. Security Council resolution that would provide further diplomatic cover for military action by Moscow or its potential allies, including Iran, one of Assad’s longest-standing supporters. The draft, a copy of which was obtained by Foreign Policy, would welcome the efforts of any U.N. member states, including nations from the Middle East and North Africa, to “contribute to countering the terrorist threat in the region, including fighting” the Islamic State, the al Nusra Front and other affiliated groups.
While the United States and other key European powers have acceded to Russia’s military intervention in Syria, they are growing increasingly suspicious of Moscow’s claims that it’s committed to limiting its campaign to fighting terrorists. They have also been amplifying calls for Moscow to move immediately to help lay the groundwork for a political transition.
Russia, the United States and other key power agreed in June 2012 to sign the U.N.-brokered Geneva Communique, which calls for the establishment of a transitional governing body made up of members of the Syrian government and opposition and empowered with “full executive powers.” The United States and its allies have long argued that such a plan would naturally require the departure of Assad, but Russia maintains any decision about Assad’s fate would have to be determined by the warring Syrian parties.
On Tuesday, Lavrov and Kerry said they are working together to try to revive the political transition. But some U.S. allies are growing impatient with Moscow.
“Instead of lone decisions by Russia to take direct military action in Syria we need Russia to take political action advocating transition in Syria,” said Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. “This would be an important contribution to overcoming the stalemate. For this a lethal stalemate which claims new lives every day.”
Russia’s intervention has introduced a new element of uncertainty into the Syrian conflict. Speaking to the U.N. General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that his country “will continue to respond forcefully to any attacks against it from Syria.” The Israeli leader also warned that Israel will “continue to act to prevent the transfer of strategic weapons to Hezbollah from and through Syrian territory.”
Photo Credit: DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch