US denounces Russian airstrikes in Syria. Will Putin prolong the war?

Russian officials say Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is crucial to fighting the Islamic State, while President Obama has called on the embattled leader to step aside.

Khalil Ashawi/Reuters
A man runs past a burning military vehicle at a base controlled by Syrian rebel fighters that was targeted by what activists said were Russian airstrikes in the southern countryside of Idlib on Thursday.

Russia’s first two days of military bombing strikes in Syria have sowed divisiveness as US and allied officials say Moscow appears to have hit targets unrelated to the Islamic State and may have hit antigovernment rebels.

US officials insisted yesterday that uncoordinated US and Russian strikes inside Syria may prolong the war and make any peace settlement more difficult.

The Pentagon and other sources say Russian jets targeted areas north of Homs known to contain rebels friendly to the US and that oppose the regime of Russia's ally, Bashar al-Assad. This includes one group trained by the CIA, according to the New York Times. 

Russian officials speaking Thursday gave a more ambiguous picture, saying their jets, deployed from a new base at Latakia, Syria, are bombing both IS targets and other “well known” rebel groups, Reuters reports.

US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told reporters Wednesday that, "It does appear they [Russian planes] were in in areas where there probably were not ISIL forces," adding that, "The result of this kind of action will inevitably simply be to inflame the civil war in Syria."

Russian Foreign Minister Dmitri Lavrov, in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, told reporters, “Don’t listen to the Pentagon about the Russian strikes.” Mr. Lavrov met yesterday for talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry on coordinating airstrikes in the skies above both Iraq and Syria.

On Monday, President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin presented fundamentally different views at the UN over how to treat Syria, whose lengthy civil war has sent refugees streaming into Europe in recent months. 

Mr. Obama told the UN that more than four years of strife in Syria has brought such anger and disarray in the country that the Assad regime in Damascus can no longer expect to rule equitably and must leave.

Mr. Putin’s position is that the main need in Syria is to fight a preventive war against IS and that the Assad regime is needed “to fight and destroy militants and terrorists on the territories that they already occupied, not wait for them to come to our house.”

US officials are still adjusting to Moscow’s new role in the Syrian conflict, analysts say. Putin's intervention appears motivated by several goals: deeper strategic purchase with Iran and its Shiite allies, including in Iraq; to engage on the side of the West against IS even as Russian-born jihadis go to fight in Syria; and also to turn attention away from Moscow’s expensive military gambit in Ukraine that has brought it international sanctions and opprobrium.

"Russia seeks to preserve the territorial integrity of Syria and prevent it from breaking into militia-run fiefdoms. That is a goal shared by the Assad regime," reports The Christian Science Monitor in an analysis of how Putin is also solidifying ties with Iran. 

A Monitor piece out of Moscow this week offers another look at Moscow's effort at playing a mediating role in Syria: 

Russia's draft resolution for the Security Council reportedly proposes a "two-track" process in Syria: one to defeat IS, the second to seek a negotiated settlement between the Assad regime and at least its moderate rebel opponents. 

The Obama administration has long said that Assad must step down. But its initial ginger efforts in 2013 to test a US willingness to intervene in Syria as the war intensified met with domestic pushback, including from Obama's own Democrat Party.

Yet the US has since also spent resources to identify and support moderate rebels who had initially been moved by the “Arab Spring” and other opposition movements in the Middle East to displace long time autocrats like Assad. 

The New York Times today reports out of Lebanon about the initial Russian strikes in Syria: 

If Moscow had been determined to destabilize the situation in Syria, many of Mr. Assad’s opponents say, it would have been hard-pressed to think of a more electrifying and polarizing way.

Among the areas hit was the base of a group that had been supported and supplied by the United States and its allies, said its leader, Jamil Saleh. He said the group’s base had been hit severely in Hama Province, wounding eight of his men. Later on Wednesday, American officials confirmed that some groups supported by the United States had been hit.

“We are on the front lines with Bashar al-Assad’s army,” said Mr. Saleh, whose group has recently posted videos of its fighters using sophisticated American-made TOW missiles to destroy government tanks. “We are moderate Syrian rebels and have no affiliation with ISIS. ISIS is at least 100 kilometers away from where we are.”

How robustly Russia can sustain a serious preventative course of action in Syria with only 32 planes deployed so far, remains unclear. 

On Thursday, Iran issued a statement giving support to Russia’s effort, according to the Associated Press.

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