At an afternoon press conference, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter claimed evidence may show that Russia airstrikes were hitting areas where there were not Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) forces and charged that Moscow’s bolstering of President Bashar al-Assad could backfire if that meant the targeting of what the U.S. considers “legitimate” opposition forces aligned against the Syrian government.
“By supporting Assad and seemingly taking on everyone who is fighting Assad, you’re taking on the whole rest of the country of Syria,” Carter said. “That is not our position. At least some parts of the anti-Assad opposition belong in the political transition going forward. That’s why the Russian approach is doomed to fail.”
With no hint of irony, given that the U.S. has been widely criticized for its bombing of the country, Carter equated Wednesday’s airstrikes by Russian warplanes as “pouring gasoline on the fire” in Syria.
Though Putin has made it plain in previous comments that he would act to defend Assad from the various militias aligned against him, the Foreign Ministry in Moscow rejected claims that the strikes were not focused on ISIS, saying in a statement that all the bombings hit “territory of the international terrorist group Isil.”
Warplanes struck eight targets, the ministry said, including “caches of weapons and ammunition, fuel and oil materials, command centers, and means of transport used by the Isil militants. All the targets were struck.”
Update (12:26 PM EDT):
As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov both spoke during a meeting of the UN Security Council on Wednesday, confirmation came that Russian warplanes have, in fact, launched airstrikes inside Syria and that U.S. officials were given advanced warning about the operations.
The State Department said that U.S.-led coalition forces were continuing their activities “as normal” despite a request from Russia that coalition aircraft stay out of Syrian airspace.
“A Russian official in Baghdad this morning informed U.S. Embassy personnel that Russian military aircraft would begin flying anti-ISIL missions today over Syria,” State Dept. spokesperson John Kirby told reporters at a morning briefing. “[The official] further requested that U.S. aircraft avoid Syrian airspace during these missions.”
Speaking before the UNSC, Kerry said the U.S. would welcome a “genuine commitment” by Russia to combat the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL), but said “we must not and will not be confused in our fight against Isil with support for Assad.” The Obama administration, he added, has told Moscow that it “would have grave concerns should Russia strike targets where ISIL and al-Qaida affiliated targets [are not] operating.”
After Putin and Obama met briefly in New York on Monday on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, Kerry reiterated that the U.S. is prepared to hold “deconfliction talks” with their Russian counterparts as early as “this week,” if possible.
Subsequent to Kerry’s remarks, Lavrov said the Russian government has told U.S. officials and its coalition allies that Moscow stands ready “to forge standing channels of communication to ensure the maximum effective fight against the terrorist groups”—an apparent reference to ISIS but also perhaps other military groups aligned against the Assad government.
Lavrov also said that Russia will now back UN efforts to get the Syrian parties talking and intends to circulate a draft resolution which will aim to foster “an inclusive and balanced outside assistance for the political process” that Syria’s warring factions so desperately need.
Lavrov said the international group should include Russia, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Qatar, the European Union and China.
“We believe that such a composition of outside sponsors acting in a united way are in a position to assist Syrians in reaching agreement based on common objectives to prevent the creation of an extremist caliphate,” Lavrov said.
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter is now scheduled to brief reporters at the Pentagon at 2:00 PM ET.
Just hours after the Upper House of the Russian Parliament on Wednesday gave President Vladimir Putin the permission he sought to use the nation’s air force to conduct missions against the Islamic State targets inside Syria, news outlets are reporting that the first Russian airstrikes inside Syria may have now taken place.
Both the New York Times and CNN, citing anonymous U.S. officials who were not authorized to speak with the press, report that strikes have been carried out. The Times reports Russian warplanes dropped bombs near the central city of Hom, though further details were not provided.
Wednesday’s vote authorizing the strikes came just two days after Putin spoke to the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York City where he also held a 90-meeting meeting with U.S. President Obama in which the main topic was the ongoing civil war in Syria and how the two world leaders might find a way to get past their differences and help find a possible solution to the crisis which has embroiled the Middle East.
Whereas the U.S. Congress has yet to formally authorize the ongoing U.S. military actions in both Syria and Iraq, Obama has claimed authority to conduct airstrikes in those countries based on previous authorizations of military force (AUMFs) granted in the wake of 9/11 to fight Al-Qaeda. While at the UN, Putin called for an international coalition to come together under the auspices of a new UN Security Council resolution which would give legal sanction to a joint military campaign against ISIS militants.
In comments on Wednesday, Putin’s chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, said that Russia’s plans at the moment would only include airstrikes, not ground forces engaged in combat inside Syria.
“You all know well that in the territory of Syria and Iraq … a number of countries are carrying out bombing strikes, including the United States,” Ivanov told reporters. “These actions do not conform with international law. To be legal they should be supported either by a resolution of the UN security council, or be backed by a request from the country where the raids are taking place.” What would make Russia’s action legitimate, explained Ivanov, is that the elected president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, has asked for and now welcomes this Russian assistance.
Even as policy experts continue to throw up warnings that there is no military solution to the civil war in Syria and that the introduction of more weapons, additional airstrikes, and new soldiers will only increase the suffering of civilian populations, the main sticking point between the U.S. and Russia remains whether Assad stays or goes as possible attempts at a diplomatic settlement form. Putin has made it clear that as the legitimate leader of Syria—and given the chaos that ensued in both Libya and Iraq after their governments were toppled by force—it would be short-sighted and irresponsible to exclude Assad from negotiations while ISIS and other radical factions stand at the ready to fill the vacuum.
Though the U.S. has maintained an active program to support military factions opposed to Assad, recent statements by both President Obama and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry have appeared to soften their strict position on regime change in Syria.