Russia has carried out its first airstrikes in Syria, US officials confirm. The bombs were dropped near the city of Homs, only hours after the Russian parliament approved the raid missions.
According to Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff, Sergei B. Ivanov, the attack was a response to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad's request for military assistance. He said Mr. al-Assad, Russia’s main ally in the Middle East, had asked for help in fighting the Islamic State (IS), known also as ISIS or ISIL, which has dominated large tracts of territory in Iraq and Syria.
Analysts say Russia’s move could be more than just an intervention against IS, as Homs isn’t currently under the terrorist group’s control. And over in northwestern Syria, an area IS does control, Russian drones have yet to be spotted, leading to speculation that Mr. Putin is targeting any and all rebel groups in the country.
Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO's supreme allied commander, told CNN Monday that the Russians have brought unnecessarily advanced aircraft onto Syrian airfields.
“I have not seen ISIL flying any airplanes that require SA-15s or SA-22s [Russian missiles]," he said, suggesting that the terrorist forces don’t require such “sophisticated air-to-air capabilities."
Russia’s authorization of the airstrikes came on the heels of a confrontation between Mr. Putin and President Barack Obama, who met privately after the United Nations General Assembly in New York. While the two nations have a common enemy in IS, Mr. Obama has said they could not be adequately targeted unless Assad leaves office, a position that Saudi Arabia and other American allies in the region stand by.
“The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict,” Mr. Obama said on Monday. “But we must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the prewar status quo.”
Addressing the UN, Putin called for an international coalition against IS and support for Assad’s regime and Kurdish forces. He invoked the Allies of World War II and their joined efforts against the Axis powers.
But experts believe that Russia’s interference will further complicate the Syrian Civil War, which has gone on for over four years, and that Putin’s actions are at least partially motivated by his desire to boost Russia’s credibility as an international power, especially after Western nations imposed sanctions to protest Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March of 2014. Putin may also have an interest in drawing domestic attention away from Ukraine.
Russian officials notified their American cohorts in advance of the airstrikes and told them the United States should not fly warplanes in Syria. At the parliamentary session Wednesday, Mr. Ivanov reiterated Putin’s promise that Russia’s armed missions will not include ground operations and argued that the Western deployment of aerial forces in Syria is illegal.
A defense official said US flying missions over Iraq and Syria will resume as planned.
At the UN assembly Monday, Putin criticized US endeavors in the Middle East, suggesting the US has played an integral role in enabling terrorists to thrive in Iraq and Libya.
Putin also mocked the current US program to train and equip moderate rebels against IS, which has been temporarily halted as the White House determines a redirection of its efforts.
Syria’s opposition media outlets claimed that the Russian airstrikes killed at least 24 people in the provinces of Homs and Hama Wednesday. The Guardian reports that the commander of a rebel group known as Tajammu al Izzah said Russian warplanes have targeted his organization’s headquarters.