The Cable

Russia Insults U.S. War Strategy With Weird Cat Metaphor

(As the bombs continue to fall in Syria.)

Smoke billows following a reported airstrike by government forces in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on November 7, 2015. More than 250,000 people have died in Syria's conflict, which several rounds of diplomatic pushes have failed to end. AFP PHOTO / KARAM AL-MASRI        (Photo credit should read KARAM AL-MASRI/AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke billows following a reported airstrike by government forces in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on November 7, 2015. More than 250,000 people have died in Syria's conflict, which several rounds of diplomatic pushes have failed to end. AFP PHOTO / KARAM AL-MASRI (Photo credit should read KARAM AL-MASRI/AFP/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, a top Russian official ridiculed the U.S.-led air campaign against the Islamic State, which he said had yielded “no concrete results.” It took less than a day for the Pentagon to fire back, with a senior American military official openly mocking Russian aviation tactics as antiquated and out of date.

The back and forth could overshadow a potentially significant battlefield shift in Syria, where U.S. officials acknowledge that Moscow has started to hit more Islamic State targets and fewer tied to the rebel groups fighting — often with U.S. help — to unseat Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. That’s been a point of friction between the two countries since Russia kicked off its bombing campaign on Sept. 30.

The war of words comes as diplomats from the two countries work together to hammer out a potential political solution to the four-year civil war in Syria that has claimed over 250,000 lives, and has given the Islamic State a home base. The latest round of talks, which wrapped up in Vienna late last week, calls for Saudi Arabia to host a meeting of Syrian opposition figures by mid-December, where they will choose a delegation to join talks with the Syrian government. A ceasefire between the sides would accompany those negotiations.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government fired the first shot in the current contretemps with the United States. Speaking on Russian television Tuesday, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused Washington of pulling its punches against the Islamic State in Syria, saying the United States “looks like a cat that wants to eat a fish but doesn’t want to wet its feet.”

Washington actually wants the Islamic State to stick around, Lavrov charged, in order to “weaken Assad” while at the same time trying to keep the militant group from taking control of the country.

When it comes to the more than 8,000 airstrikes that the United States and its allies have launched against the militant group since August 2014, however, Lavrov said, “we see next to no concrete results but for the expansion of the Islamic State over this time.”

Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon from Baghdad on Wednesday, coalition spokesman U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren offered his own harsh assessment of Russian aerial tactics on display in the skies over Syria. Despite the videos released by the Russian Ministry of Defense showing what are purportedly dead-on strikes against individual targets, Warren said the Russians lack precision munitions, and instead are “using dumb bombs, and their history has been both reckless and irresponsible” when it comes to choosing legitimate targets.

And when it comes to the massive bombing run flown by over a dozen Tu-95 bombers against the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa and the group’s oil fields on Tuesday, Warren charged that “those are antiquated tactics, we don’t use those kinds of tactics any more.”

Massing that many aircraft in one place is “very old-fashioned,” he said. “Those are the types of tactics needed only if you don’t possess the technologies, the skills, and the capability to conduct the type of precision strikes that our coalition has done.”

Sniping aside, the composition of the air war over Syria has changed dramatically in recent weeks, and confusion is rampant. Originally, Russian aircraft concentrated almost exclusively on bombing rebel groups who opposed Assad in an effort to prop up the government of Putin’s closest Arab ally.

But Tuesday’s strikes, U.S. officials admit, have finally struck squarely at the heart of the Islamic State’s leadership structure and the oil fields that fund much of the group’s operations. Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said Tuesday that “these most recent airstrikes have appeared to have targeted ISIL-controlled areas,” using an alternate term for the Islamic State.

The strikes also marked the first time that Russia alerted the coalition beforehand to an upcoming operation, following the terms of an Oct. 20 agreement meant to “deconflict” air operations so aircraft from the two nations won’t run into one another while carrying out missions.

But with the French stepping up their involvement in Syria following the brutal murder of 129 civilians in Paris by ISIS operatives on Nov. 13, the war in Syria is preparing to morph yet again.

French President François Hollande plans to visit President Barack Obama in Washington next week, followed by a trip to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in order to discuss military coordination in the fight. On Tuesday, Putin ordered the Russian missile cruiser Moskva to work with the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, which is currently en route to the eastern Mediterranean to begin flying strikes against the Islamic State.

“When the Charles de Gaulle comes to the shores of Syria, joint military work will be organized,” Russian Col. Gen. Andrei Kartapolov said in a statement on Wednesday. The Pentagon has announced that the USS Harry S. Truman left the Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia on Monday en route to the region on a seven-month deployment, where it will also launch strikes on ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

But while the French appear willing to work with anyone involved in the fight in Syria, the U.S. military — so far — continues to dig in its heels. “We’re not coordinating with the Russians, we’re not conducting operations with the Russians, nor are we planning to do any of those things,” Warren said on Wednesday.

Photo credit: KARAM AL-MASRI/AFP/Getty Images

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