Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to step up his country's military campaign against Islamist militants in Syria, after Kremlin officials concluded that the Russian jetliner that crashed in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula on Oct. 31 was brought down by a bomb.
"We will find them anywhere on the planet and punish them," Mr. Putin said at a security meeting late Monday night, referring to the terrorists behind the bombing. Though he did not single out the self-proclaimed Islamic State as responsible for the attack, Putin said that "Our air force's military work in Syria must not simply be continued. It must be intensified in such a way that the criminals understand that retribution is inevitable."
IS quickly claimed responsibility for bringing down the Airbus jet carrying 224 people, mostly Russian tourists, from Sharm al-Shiekh to St. Petersburg. It said it was in retaliation for Russia's decision to provide air support to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russia initially pushed back against claims by Britain and the US that a bomb was "more likely than not" the cause, and insisted on patience while the investigation continued.
Now, the head of Russia's security bureau, the FSB has confirmed that the Metrojet flight was brought down by "a homemade bomb containing up to 1 kilogram (2.2 lb) of TNT." Egyptian investigators, who have been working with the Russians, say they have not yet finished their work.
But the Kremlin left no room for doubt in its announcement overnight. "We can unequivocally say it was a terrorist act," FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov said. Reuters reports that he said traces of the explosive were found both on fragments of the plane and in passengers' belongings.
Reuters also reports that two Sharm al-Shiekh airport personnel have been detained by Egypt in connection with the bombing, though Egyptian interior ministry officials have denied that is the case to local media.
The Russian announcement, coming just days after gunmen killed more than 129 people in a series of attacks in Paris allegedly on IS orders, increases the possibility of a "grand coalition" of both Western and Russian forces against the Islamist group. The French government announced today that it plans to hold talks to that end with both Russia and the US, "to increase our efforts and be more effective even against [IS]," The Washington Post reports.
Russia put forward the idea of such an anti-IS coalition in late September, just before it launched its air campaign in Syria. The Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday that the attacks in Paris, along with similarly devastating suicide bombings in Beirut and Ankara in recent weeks, are tilting the West toward working with Russia on a common solution in Syria, one that would both minimize IS and seek to resolve the country's civil war.
“There is a new pragmatism emerging in Europe to work with Russia and Iran, and other European partners, and to try and work towards a political solution,” says Eugene Rogan, director of the Middle East Centre at the University of Oxford. ...
The terror attacks in Paris will add to the sense of urgency, at least for Europeans, who have already felt increasing pressures from the growing refugee crisis to move on a negotiated solution for Syria, experts say.
Talks in Vienna on Syria have already made more progress in the past 10 days than in the previous four years, says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the international affairs committee of the Federation Council, Russia's Senate. A rough draft of a transitional program lays out a path to a ceasefire, a new Syrian constitution, and fresh elections within 18 months. Crucially, this was jointly announced by Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry in Vienna on Saturday.
“A lot has happened rather quickly in the wake of Russia's intervention, and it's pleasant to note that our initiatives are finally getting some traction," says Mr. Klimov. "But peoples' minds are also being focused by the victories the Russian-backed Syrian forces are gaining in the field, and by the terrible tragedies from recent terrorist strikes in Turkey, Lebanon, and now Paris. We do see movement, and we are hopeful."
But despite common interest in a diplomatic resolution in Syria, it is unclear if and how IS can be brought down, as neither Russia nor Western powers seem ready to commit ground troops to the conflict. The Associated Press notes that Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the possibility was not being considered, while US and other Western capitals have repeatedly ruled out fighting on the ground.