The Cable

GOP Chairman: Russia Bombing 8 Times More Than U.S. in Syria

Frustrated by the U.S. air campaign against the Islamic State, the House Foreign Affairs chairman on Wednesday said Russia launched eight times as many strikes in Syria during October than did the United States.

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 04:  Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA), participates in a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, November 4, 2015 in Washington, DC. The committee heard testimony from State DepartmentÊofficials onÊU.S. policy after Russia's escalation in Syria.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 04: Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA), participates in a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, November 4, 2015 in Washington, DC. The committee heard testimony from State DepartmentÊofficials onÊU.S. policy after Russia's escalation in Syria. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Frustrated by the U.S. air campaign against the Islamic State, the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman on Wednesday said Russia launched eight times as many strikes in Syria during October than did the United States.

Most of Russia’s estimated 800 airstrikes last month were aimed at opposition fighters who seek to oust Moscow’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said Ed Royce (R-Calif.).

By contrast, “we managed just 100 against ISIS,” he said, using an acronym for the militant group also known as ISIL.

The United States and Russia are leading parallel air campaigns against various Sunni militant groups inside Syria. While both missions claim to target the Islamic State and other terrorists, U.S. officials have said 85 to 90 percent of Russian air strikes over the last month have hit rebel groups — not the Islamic State extremists who have overtaken much of Iraq and Syria.

Royce suggested Russia’s stepped-up air campaign could have hobbled the pace and intensity of the U.S.-led strikes, which began a year ago. “Are we ceding the skies to Russia here?” he asked.

The State Department’s top diplomat for the Middle East, testifying before the committee Wednesday, would not confirm Royce’s statistics. But she said the potential delta between the bombing campaigns could be blamed on a range of factors, including the closer intermingling of civilian and military targets in Syria, U.S. concerns about collateral damage, and bad weather.

It is a very complex battlefield mixed in with civilians,” said Assistant Secretary of State Anne Patterson. “There are very high standards vis-a-vis collateral damage and civilian casualties that I would suggest the Russian air force is not subject to.”

In an e-mail to Foreign Policy, Pentagon spokesman Col. Patrick Ryder said there is “absolutely no correlation” between the number of U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State and the Russian intervention in Syria.

“We have not adjusted the pace or frequency of our airstrikes due to any Russian activity,” he said. “Our airstrikes continue to effectively target and put significant pressure on ISIL in Syria and Iraq in support of the international coalition’s campaign to degrade and destroy ISIL.”

Last week, President Barack Obama announced plans to send 50 special operations troops to Syria to advise members of the country’s moderate opposition. While Republican lawmakers at Wednesday’s hearing pressed Obama administration officials to bomb more frequently, Democrats questioned whether sending U.S. special forces to Syria will amount to a “slippery slope” of ever-increasing American involvement in the civil war, now in its fifth year.

“You can’t say we should be putting in U.S. troops on the ground there … unless you’re willing to hold that [territory] and have a huge investments of our troops,” said Rep. Bill Keating (D-Mass.). “I don’t think that that’s the best thing for our country at this time.”

The civil war has killed an estimated 225,000 Syrians and created more than 4 million refugees around the world. Patterson and Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, the top U.S. diplomat for Europe, blamed Russia’s attacks for an uptick in the number of Syrian refugees over the last month. “Russia’s military intervention has dangerously exacerbated an already complex environment,” Patterson said.

Nuland said Moscow is spending $2 million to $4 million each day on the military campaign despite its struggling economy, which has been badly affected by low oil prices and Western sanctions.

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