Russia launched its first airstrikes in Syria on Sept. 30 from its base at the Syrian airfield Hmeymim. The Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation said all targets have been successfully engaged and all pilots have completely destroyed headquarters and coordination centers of the ISIS troops located in the mountains.
However, Defense Secretary, Ash Carter, said that the Russian strikes were conducted not in an area where ISIS is present. It appears that Russia is targeting the rebels fighting the forces deployed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the secretary said. NATO supreme allied commander for Europe, Philip Breedlove, who also serves as commander of U.S. European Command, is also suspicious of Russia’s moves in Syria.
The Pentagon had been training Syrian oppositions that constitute the New Syrian Forces fighting the Assad regime. And if Russia is targeting groups fighting against President al-Assad, then the situation is tantamount to Russia and U.S. conducting strikes against each other. U.S. has the responsibility to protect the U.S.-backed Syrian opposition. Russia is vocal of its support to President al-Assad. U.S. is a strong NATO ally.
According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, its fighter jets performed high accuracy strikes against international organization ISIS. A day before, the Office of Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he submitted a proposal to the Federation Council asking to authorize the use of Russian Armed Forces outside Russia, in accordance with the international law.
In a press conference on Thursday, Carter said that Russia’s activity in Syria is very vague at this point. Russia states intent to fight the ISIS but also support the Assad regime.
“Fighting ISIL (ISIS) without pursuing a parallel political transition only risks escalating the civil war in Syria – and with it, the very extremism and instability that Moscow claims to be concerned about and aspire to fighting. So that approach is tantamount … to pouring gasoline on the fire,” Carter told press.
Carter said that he informed Russian Minister of Defense, Sergey Shoygu, that the Pentagon is ready to send a team to meet with Russian defense counterparts – at a location to be agreed upon – to ensure that Russia and U.S. avoid any inadvertent incidents over Syrian air space.
“We have been observing Russian activities, and I don’t want to go into detail about that at this time. But the — the — the reason — one of the reasons why the Russian position is contradictory is that — that exactly the potential for them to strike, as they may well have, in places where in fact ISIL is not present. I want to be careful about confirming information. But it does appear that they were in areas where there probably was — were not ISIL forces, and that is precisely one of the problems with this whole approach,” Carter said.
Breedlove believes that Russia is involving itself in Syria to remove the international community’s attention from the Ukraine crisis. The general believes that Russia wants to prolong the Assad regime because that is their legitimate door to their ports and airfields in Syria. “I think that Russia wants to be able to slow the advance of the opposition to Mr. Assad in Syria, and then after all of that, I think they will do some counter-ISIL work in order to legitimize their approach to Syria,” Breedlove said.
What makes Russia’s moves in Syria extra concerning is its deployment of advanced fighter jets with sophisticated capabilities. “I have not seen ISIL flying any airplanes that require … sophisticated air-to-air capabilities. These sophisticated air-defense capabilities are not about ISIL,” he said.
State Secretary John Kerry also expressed the same concern in his remarks at the UN. Kerry expressed the government’s willingness to work with Russia only if its actions in Syria are genuine commitment to defeat ISIS.
“But we must not and will not be confused in our fight against ISIL with support for Assad. Moreover, we have also made clear that we would have grave concerns should Russia strike areas where ISIL and al-Qaida-affiliated targets are not operating. Strikes of that kind would question Russia’s real intentions fighting ISIL or protecting the Assad regime,” Kerry said in his remark.
Meanwhile, Mr. Putin views U.S. intervention in Syria as “illegal.” The president explained that the airstrikes conducted in Iraq by the U.S.-led coalition is legal because there had been a request from its government. But as far as Syria is concerned, “there is neither a Security Council resolution on the issue, nor a corresponding request from the official authorities in Damascus,” Mr. Putin told press.
Russia, Iran, Iraq and Syria have set up an information center in Baghdad to maintain a line of communication in coordinating every country’s effort in their fight against the ISIS “and other terrorist organizations.” Mr. Putin said that U.S. as well as other representatives of other countries interested in combating terrorism are welcome at the information center.
“Regarding al-Assad. I have great respect for my colleagues – both the American President, and the French President – however, as far as I know they are not citizens of the Syrian Republic and therefore should not take part in determining the future of another state’s leadership. This is the Syrians’ business,” Mr. Putin said.