Members of the US-led coalition against Islamic State have called on Russia to cease air strikes they say are hitting the Syrian opposition and civilians, the BBC reports:
In a joint statement on Friday, the US, UK, Turkey and other coalition members said Russian strikes would “only fuel more extremism”. Russia, which according to witnesses launched fresh strikes on Friday, says it is targeting Islamic State (IS).
A recent report by the Royal United Services Institute in London noted evidence that Russian intelligence was facilitating passports for homegrown Islamists to allow them to pursue jihad in Syria and Iraq, in the hope other countries’ bombers will decimate them. Now Putin has undone that work, providing a rallying cry for jihad at home, The Guardian adds.
A prominent Syrian rebel leader said that Russian air strikes meant the war would go on longer, fuel extremism, and draw more foreign fighters to Syria, Reuters reports:
Bashar al-Zoubi, who heads one of the largest rebel groups in southern Syria, called on Assad’s Arab foes to meet the rebels’ long-standing demand for anti-aircraft missiles so they could defend themselves from the newly arrived Russian jets. He also said that even Russian air power could not settle the four-year-long war on Assad’s terms, and said Moscow ran the risk of another Afghanistan in Syria – a reference to the Soviet Union’s defeat there in the 1980s.
“These air strikes will extend the life of the war as a first step,” said Zoubi, whose Yarmouk Army fights under the banner of the “Free Syrian Army” (FSA).
“As a second step, they will spread extremism, because when the war becomes a global one against the Syrian people, it will not retreat from its goals, and there will be fertile ground to attract foreign fighters to fight the Russians,” Zoubi said.
In a second day of raids in Syria, Russian warplanes carried out a new round of airstrikes on Thursday that once again — contrary to Moscow’s assertions — appeared to be targeting not the Islamic State but a rival moderate insurgent coalition, The New York Times reports.
“The fact that [Putin] is not fighting terrorism, but is actually taking a side in what has become a sectarian quagmire, allying with the Shia against the Sunnis, is bound to play a role in this matter as well,” notes Syrian democracy activist Ammar Abdulhamid [left]. “Indeed, considering that Russia’s 12% Muslim communities are overwhelmingly Sunni, Putin’s policies may not that wise on the long run.”
Several Middle East analysts said the United States and its allies are left with few alternatives short of a deeper military involvement in Syria, which the administration continues to reject, notes Bloomberg.
“The West doesn’t have a mechanism to block what Russia is trying to do, and there’s very little appetite in the White House to get the U.S. in the middle of this,” said Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Overtake U.S. as global actor
“There is a bigger goal here, which is really, in some way, overtake the as a global actor,” said Blaise Misztal, national security program director at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Saudi and other Arab officials warned the Obama administration this week that Russia’s military intervention in Syria risked fueling a new flood of funds and fighters into the ranks of extremist groups Islamic State and al Qaeda and could aid their efforts to claim even more territory in the Middle East, The Wall Street Journal adds.
“An overt Russian intervention to further prop the Assad government may provoke a further increase in support for such hard-line militant groups…further intensifying the conflict,” said Matthew Henman of London-based IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center.
Angela Stent, a senior fellow at the Transatlantic Academy on leave from Georgetown University, said Russia was acting not just to defend Assad, but to have a say in the transition process if the Syrian leader is ousted.
“They also want to be present so that if there is some transition away from Assad, they can be involved, they can be kingmakers, they can be part of the decision,” Stent said. Even so, she said, Putin’s United Nations speech in which he blamed U.S. intervention in Iraq for today’s chaos in the region suggests a blind spot in his reading of the situation.
“If they’re worried about the impact of Islamic State and the fact that they have 2,500 Russian citizens fighting in Syria, supporting Assad isn’t exactly going to help that problem,” Stent said. “It not only alienates the Sunni population in the Arab world, but their own Sunni population.”
Senators are calling on the U.S. administration to clarify its strategy on Syria, after Russia ignored repeated U.S. warnings and began bombing rebel groups there this week to shore up the Assad regime, according to The Hill.
“The Russians are interested in several things in Syria,” said Christopher Kozak of the Institute for the Study of War:
Kozak said Russia’s more aggressive stance in Syria gives it “leverage” against the U.S. and its anti-Islamic State coalition that has been fighting militants in Iraq and Syria. He also said the stepped-up involvement in Syria takes the spotlight off Ukraine, where Russia has faced criticism from the U.S. and other world powers for its support of rebels.
“When you put all of this evidence together, this actually allows Russia to apply several different layers of torque,” Kozak told Voice of America, “in order to assert itself in the region and on the international stage.”
The Obama administration has been “trying to sit on two chairs,” noted Konstantin von Eggert, an independent political analyst. It has been slamming Russia over Crimea and eastern Ukraine, while saying it seeks to cooperate with Russia on the Iran nuclear deal, the Middle East and other issues.
If Mr. Putin manages to forge a coalition on Syria, it would be increasingly difficult for Washington to argue that the Kremlin deserves isolation, he told The Times. There is an inconsistency in the message, Mr. von Eggert noted, and “Putin always exploits those inconsistencies.”
“What the Russians are doing is saying, ‘What is the priority threat to the regime?’ And they are dealing with that,” said Jeffrey White, a military analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “At some point, they might get around to hitting ISIS. But at the moment, it’s about the threat, not the group, and they want to deal with the threat to the regime.”
Russian government officials and politicians have also begun openly discussing the possibility of broadening military intervention from Syria into Iraq — just a day after Sergei Ivanov, the head of Mr Putin’s presidential administration, insisted that the campaign would be limited to Syria, The Financial Times adds:
“Let’s be blunt: this is lying. They have always been a propaganda state, but by now, we are looking at a methodical approach where disinformation and surprise have become deeply rooted at the operational level,” says Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian military at New York University.
A pattern of initial denial and later step-by-step acknowledgment of the Soviet Union’s military presence had already been visible in the Afghanistan war, Mr Galeotti said, but the technique was refined and well-honed during Russia’s war in Georgia in 2008.
Syria provides an ideal vehicle for [Putin to get back into the West’s good graces], while also giving Moscow a significant role in the Middle East and promoting Mr. Putin’s long-term ambitions of re-establishing Russia as a player on the world stage, The Times notes:
“Putin dreams of the restoration of Russian power everywhere, not just in the former Soviet space,” said Aleksei Malashenko, a military analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “The activity in Syria and around Syria means Russia is able to come back to the Middle East, not as a superpower, but as something that can balance the power of the West and the United States.”
In Turkey and the Gulf states, government officials not so long ago talked about establishing a no-fly zone to protect these rebel-held areas or even about launching airstrikes against Syrian regime targets. That is no longer an option as Ankara or Riyadh can’t openly respond to the Russian presence in Syrian skies, The WSJ adds:
“Until now these countries were dealing with a country that is much easier to oppose called Iran. Now the stakes are much higher,” said Vali Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced and International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and a former U.S. State Department adviser.
“All the countries that object to Russia’s position, particularly Turkey and Saudi Arabia, have very few options to oppose it. They don’t have the
The Russian offensive is “a provocation — and a direct challenge to what’s left of the U.S. policy of supporting a moderate opposition,” says analyst Charles Krauthammer.
Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the U.S. does have options, but most involve a more forceful military stance either in Syria or with respect to Russia, an approach Obama so far has shunned.
“A more aggressive military posturing or action is the thing that hasn’t been tried,” Tabler said. “The question is: What’s the smart move? If we’re going to help the government in Ukraine fight Russian separatists and the Russian annexation of Crimea, then we should do it. If we’re going to help the Syrian opposition get Assad to step aside, we should do it.”
While Putin now seeks the moral high ground as he advances his idea of an “international coalition” to fight terror, he pays only lip service to international law and has no qualms about breaking it as he did in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, says Anna Borshchevskaya, the Ira Weiner Fellow at The Washington Institute.
It is the West that created and advanced international institutions and, for better or worse, continues to abide by their rules, notes Borshchevskaya, a former Penn Kemble Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.