NATO's chief today described a “troubling escalation” of fighting in Syria a week after Russia entered the four-year civil war. But he said that NATO is “ready and able” to send forces to defend member Turkey, should the now-intensified conflict spill across its border.
Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said NATO had increased “our capacity, our ability, our preparedness to deploy forces … including in Turkey." Last weekend, two Russian jets violated Turkish air space, which Russia said was a mistake and Turkey called a provocation.
Mr. Stoltenberg added that a political solution was needed in Syria, according to Reuters.
His statement came a day after Russian naval vessels in the Caspian Sea fired 26 cruise missiles over Iran and Iraq and into Syria. The move was the latest in a week of airstrikes against Syrian insurgents. The Kremlin has also said that Russian “volunteers” may fight in Syria.
The cruise missiles launched Wednesday are intended to show Russia’s “commitment” to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, The New York Times reports, citing an official in the pro-Assad alliance. This alliance – comprising Russia, Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah – is determined to secure the Syrian coastal region of Latakia, a stronghold of Mr. Assad.
Russian President Vladimir Putin last week told the UN General Assembly that Russia would intervene in Syria to punish the so-called Islamic State, which has flourished in the chaos of a civil war that has raged since 2011 and forced millions of Syrians to flee their home. Hundreds of thousands have sought sanctuary in Europe.
For a brief moment, it appeared that US and Russian forces might quickly start to cooperate. But those hopes have been dashed. A US State Department spokesperson Wednesday said that 90 percent of Russian air strikes have targeted Syrian rebels opposed to Assad.
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in Rome yesterday called Russia’s approach to Syria “tragically flawed” and took pains to say that US forces would not cooperate with Russian forces as long as Moscow hits targets other than IS.
“They continue to hit targets that are not ISIL," Carter said, using an acronym for Islamic State. "We believe that is a fundamental mistake," according to the Associated Press.
Mr. Carter's statements were seen as an important reassurance to Arab nations who oppose Putin's military intervention in Syria.
So far, according to Politico, President Barack Obama has resisted pressure to react to Russia's actions. “Obama remains determined to avoid a direct conflict or a proxy fight with Moscow, especially when he believes Putin is making a strategic blunder,” Politico notes.
Yet the president has been under pressure from a variety of actors Politico reports:
They include a call from Jimmy Carter’s former national security adviser to “disarm” Russian assets in Syria if Putin doesn’t change his behavior, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s insistence that conflict with Russia is a risk worth taking in the name of asserting America’s goals in Syria, and talk of new sanctions on Moscow.
The Washington Post today reports that Russian airstrikes are directly supporting a Syrian Army offensive in the al-Ghab plain in western Syria, according to pro-government media in Damascus:
The incursions into al-Ghab come the day after the Syrian government backed by Russian air power opened a much wider ground offensive against Syrian rebels in Hama and Idlib provinces — the government’s first major ground offensive since Moscow began its intervention in the conflict Sept. 30. The Free Syrian Army posted a number of videos showing rebels striking Syrian regime tanks with U.S.-made anti-tank missiles.
The Times story today, citing the pro-Assad alliance official, suggested that Putin's plan in Syria is to first secure the regime of Assad, then hit IS:
Russia has focused its earliest operations on the insurgent coalition known as the Army of Conquest, or Jaish al-Fatah, rather than on the Islamic State ... because it is the Army of Conquest’s positions that most urgently threaten the crucial government-held coastal province of Latakia, while Islamic State forces are farther to the east and can later be isolated and hit. Latakia is Mr. Assad’s family’s ancestral home and the heartland of his fellow Alawites, who provide a critical bloc of support.