US weighs options as Russia continues attacks on Syria rebels

Assad’s ambassador to Russia acknowledged that all rebel groups would be fair game in the Russian air campaign.

By
October 2, 2015 00:59
US President Barack Obama (L) and Vice President Joe Biden

US President Barack Obama (L) and Vice President Joe Biden. (photo credit: OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE PHOTO BY PETE SOUZA)

 
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NEW YORK – Russian warplanes took to Syrian skies for their second day of combat on Thursday, striking at rebel groups opposed to embattled Syrian president Bashar Assad that have been trained by the CIA.

After earlier stating that its mission in Syria was to combat the Islamic State terrorist network, Moscow amended its explanation of the new campaign, which began on Wednesday with strikes in Syria’s western Homs and Hama provinces. Neither host Islamic State fighters.

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Attacks going forward will target not just Islamic State, but a longer list of terrorist organizations agreed upon by Moscow and the Assad government, the Kremlin said on Thursday. Assad’s ambassador to Russia later acknowledged that all rebel groups would be fair game in the Russian air campaign.

The list includes the Saudi Arabian-backed “al-Nusra [Front] and other terrorist groups,” Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters at the United Nations in New York. He rejected reports that the targets of recent attacks were CIA-trained groups.

Yet video footage and eyewitness corroboration on the ground confirmed that Thursday’s air attacks from Russian planes targeted assets in Idlib province – significantly to the west of known Islamic State strongholds, and the base of the US-backed Liwa Suqour al-Jabal rebel group. That militia has been trained by the CIA in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, according to its commander, Hassan Haj Ali. “Russia is challenging everyone and saying there is no alternative to Bashar,” said Haj Ali. The group counts itself as part of the Free Syrian Army, which is publicly supported by the United States.

“I can absolutely confirm to you that there were strikes against our Free Syrian Army, or groups that have been armed and trained by the CIA, because we have communications with people there,” Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain, Republican from Arizona, said on Thursday morning. McCain has lamented US President Barack Obama’s policy on Syria for several years, and he is among several critics now expressing bittersweet vindication in their foresight as the White House struggles to respond. On Thursday morning, the Pentagon began negotiations with Moscow, via secure video conference, to ensure that Russian and American air power do not come into direct conflict with one another.

Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin initially agreed to hold “deconfliction” talks in a meeting at the UN on Monday.



But two days later, shortly after affirming the importance of strong communication with Washington, Moscow informed the US that it was launching its campaign with just one hour’s notice. A Russian official was sent to the US Embassy in Baghdad and said their strikes in Syria would begin within the hour. He then asked US-led coalition air forces in Syria to vacate the airspace. The US has led an air campaign against Islamic State fighters since September of last year, with a coalition that includes forces from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain, France, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. The campaign is also targeting Islamic State in Iraq, with the consent of the government in Baghdad.

Separately, Israel continues to carry out periodic strikes targeting the transfer of heavy weapons in Syria from Iran to Hezbollah. Those strikes will continue, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in his address to the United Nations on Thursday.

“We will continue to act to stop the transfer of weapons from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon through Syrian territory,” he said.

Jerusalem was also given an hour’s notice before the attacks began on Wednesday. Last month, Netanyahu traveled to Moscow to begin Israel’s own talks over mechanisms to avoid unintended conflict.

But for the US, deconfliction mechanisms are only the beginning – a required precautionary move to avoid the most disastrous scenario of direct conflict between Moscow and Washington.

The more difficult question facing the Obama administration is one of strategy.

For months, Obama has proposed a diplomatic resolution that would include a transitional council, a reconciliation government and, ultimately, Assad’s departure from office.

But Russia and Iran are doubling down on their support for Assad, a longtime ally of both countries. They say he is the only legitimate representative of the Syrian state.

Assad, who now controls roughly 20 percent of the country’s territory, has presided over the country since 2000 – and over a civil war that has taken nearly 300,000 lives, displaced half of the population and forced millions of Syrians to seek refuge in Europe and elsewhere.

The war has also provided a vacuum for terrorist organizations globally – primarily Islamic State, which has taken control of nearly half of Syria.

The Obama administration has slowly increased its support for the Free Syrian Army since the civil war broke out in 2011.

The current US policy – to train and equip the moderate Syrian rebels now under assault from Islamic State, Assad and Russian forces – has been declared a failure by senior Pentagon officials, who say that only five fighters have been successfully trained and deployed.

Obama has repeatedly weighed and rejected proposals for a no-fly zone over all or parts of Syria, either for strategic or humanitarian purposes.

Experts question whether such an option is viable now that Russian jets are traversing the skies, taking off from freshly paved Russian air bases in Assad territory. “The president can make it very unpleasant for the Russians to stay in the air, either by targeting airstrips or by harassing their aircraft. Will he? No,” said Danielle Pletka, senior vice president of the American Enterprise Institute.

Pletka fears the conflict is likely to escalate as Iran prepares to deploy hundreds of its ground troops alongside its proxy Hezbollah forces on behalf of Assad, under the cover of Russian air power, and as Riyadh considers its counter-response.

“We’ve already seen the Saudis and others double down on the anti-Assad crowd, including, unfortunately, some al-Qaida affiliates. I suspect this will only prompt further escalation,” she said, adding: “Tehran and their proxies are hugely worried about Assad. It’s not like they haven’t been involved in ground operations to date; why not more?”

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