NEW YORK – Russia’s air force began striking targets in Syria on Wednesday on behalf of the country’s embattled president, Bashar Assad, hours after receiving authorization from the Kremlin.
The development – anticipated for weeks since satellite imagery first identified the expansion of Russian military bases in western Syria – further crowds the skies over a nation ravaged by an intractable war that has claimed more than 300,000 lives.
As Israel continues to strike inside eastern Syria to prevent the transfer of heavy arms from Iran to Lebanese Hezbollah, to the west, a US-led coalition of air forces from the United States, United Kingdom, France, Australia, Qatar, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates continues to strike targets of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist network.
Israel and the US-led coalition against IS, both with ongoing air campaigns in Syrian skies, were informed of the strikes by Moscow one hour in advance. Russia says its new battlefront is against militants and assets of Islamic State in support of Assad, a longtime ally.
Israel did not, however, receive any information on where the strikes would occur, Israeli sources confirmed said.
Israel and the US are hoping to establish “deconflict” mechanisms, fearing unintended confrontation with Russia now that so many different forces are at play in the field. Mechanisms were agreed upon by Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin in a recent meeting in Moscow, and Putin agreed to begin deconfliction talks with US President Barack Obama during a meeting on Monday at the United Nations.
But just two days later, Russian officials told their US counterparts that the most effective way to deconflict the crisis was for US-led forces to leave Syrian airspace.
Pentagon officials say US operations in Syria will continue unchanged, and took umbrage at the suggestion in conversations with the press.
“We will continue our air strikes unimpeded,” US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told journalists at the Pentagon on Wednesday afternoon, calling the new Russian strategy “ill-advised” and warning it would backfire.
While its stated target is Islamic State, the opening salvos of Moscow’s campaign were focused in Homs and Hama provinces – two regions largely controlled by rebel groups supported by the United States and its allies, and far from IS territory in the country’s northeast.
One Syrian rebel leader with Western support, Iyad Shamse of the Free Syrian Army, claimed the strikes on Homs had taken the lives of 50 civilians, including children.
“There is no Islamic State in this area,” Shamse said. “The Russians are applying great pressure on the revolution. This will strengthen terrorism, everyone will head towards extremism. Any support for Assad in this way is strengthening terrorism.”
Speaking with The Jerusalem Post
on a condition of anonymity, several US officials expressed surprise at the location of the attacks, which they viewed as brazenly outside the parameters of Moscow’s stated mission.
The new policy “is tantamount to pouring gasoline on the fire,” Carter said. The immediate US goal, he said, is to ensure that Russia does not “interfere” in continuing US-led operations against Islamic State and that deconfliction mechanisms are established.
Carter described Moscow’s moves “contradictory” and “doomed to failure,” because the strikes, he said, “are in places where ISIL is not present.”
Supporting Assad and “seemingly taking on everyone who is fighting Assad,” he said, would deepen the crisis, not alleviate it.
Russia notified the US that strikes would start by sending an official to the US embassy in Baghdad, where he “read the news from a note,” one US official described.
Despite the news, US Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday repeated Obama’s commitment made earlier in the week to work “with any nation, including Russia and Iran,” to resolve the war. The US and its allies insist that Assad ultimately leave power, as they consider him the instigator of the conflict personally responsible for much of the carnage; but Moscow and Tehran are strategically aligned with the Assad government, and consider him a consistent, stable and legitimate force in a fractured nation.
A spokesman for the Kremlin, announcing the body’s endorsement of the operation, said its authorization explicitly excludes “the use of armed forces on the ground theater.” While more than a dozen foreign nations have sent aircraft into Syria, only one – Iran – has deployed ground troops and advisers in significant numbers.
On Tuesday, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia – which has funded rebel groups considered extreme by Washington to fight Assad – told the UN that Riyadh would support a transitional council that ultimately would lead to Assad’s peaceful departure.
The path is largely supported by the Obama administration.
“The other option is the military option,” Adel al-Jubeir said.
Russia’s campaign begins almost one year to the date after US forces first struck Syria with its partners on September 23, 2014.Yaakov Lappin contributed to this report.