Russia President Vladimir Putin’s airstrikes inside Syria are forcing the world to confront his latest military adventure, against a backdrop of deep distrust over whether defeating the Islamic State is his only goal.
While the U.S. and its allies want to see the extremists crushed, Putin’s actions — the U.S. said he bombed an area where the terror group doesn’t operate — fueled fears that he just wants to prop up ally President Bashar al-Assad, who Western leaders say should step aside. It also raises the odds of high-stakes accidents as Russian and U.S. jets share the same air space but potentially different missions.
“If it is a prelude to a diplomatic process that maybe even makes Russia more willing to assist in a transition then it could have even a positive aspect,” said Philip Gordon, a former White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf Region. “Anytime you are introducing military forces into a war zone it’s potentially dangerous.”
Coming less than 48 hours after Putin and President Barack Obama failed to reach a breakthrough over Syrian policy at the United Nations, world powers seemed caught off guard by Russia’s actions. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of StateJohn Kerry vowed to prevent “unintended consequences” in a lawless territory that has seen 250,000 people killed and millions sent fleeing since civil war erupted in 2011.
“We agreed that the military should get into contact with each other very soon,” Lavrov said alongside Kerry at the UN.
Kerry earlier in the day said strikes against the self-declared caliphate were welcome but added that he would have “grave concerns” if Russia attacks areas where Islamic State isn’t operating. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said that seemed to be the case.
Russia insists that its initial eight targets were Islamic State militants, saying its warplanes struck command points, military equipment, arms depots, and warehouses controlled by the terror group. Yet Putin has also called other anti-Assad rebels in Syria backed by the U.S. “terrorists.”
Russia isn’t the only country accused of using attacks on Islamic State as a pretext to carry out other operations. Turkey’s airstrikes on Islamic State morphed into assaults on Kurdish militants inside Turkey and Iraq. Turkish authorities say they were responding to attacks by the autonomy-seeking Kurdish PKK, which has killed more than 100 Turkish police officers and soldiers since fighting intensified in early July.
The head of Syria’s main Western-backed opposition, Khaled Khoja, said 36 civilians, including five children, died as a result of Russian bombing: “They are there to uphold a regime that is on its last legs,” he added, referring to Assad.
Lavrov rejected the accusation.
“We take full responsibility for our targets,” he told reporters at the UN. “We are very carefully controlling to ensure that these surgical strikes have been surgical and that their targets were positions, objects, equipment and weaponry of terrorist groups.”
The Russian sorties were welcomed by Iraq, which has seen swaths of its territory overrun by Islamic State militants. This month it agreed to share intelligence with Russia and Iran to help combat the terror group. Foreign Affairs Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari said that “weakening ISIS bases in Syria” will “weaken ISIS locations in Iraq as well.”
It’s not just heightening tensions with the West that are at stake. His moves threaten to alienate Sunni Muslims and drag Russia ever more deeply into a deadly conflict that has no end in sight.Putin, in a meeting with officials Wednesday in Moscow, indicated it was a risk worth taking.
“The only right way to fight international terrorism” is to “act preventively,” Putin said. “To fight and destroy militants and terrorists on the territories that they already occupied, not wait for them to come to our house.”
U.S. officials also flagged the danger of mid-air crashes that could quickly escalate the situation in unpredictable and dangerous ways — and of the greater peril that Putin’s actions could further destabilize the region.
According to the State Department, when Russia informed U.S. officials in Baghdad of their intentions, they asked the Americans to clear their jets from Syrian airspace. Carter said Wednesday that won’t happen.
“The coalition will continue to fly missions over Iraq and Syria as planned — as we did today,” Carter said.
The dispute highlights the mutual suspicions and recriminations at the heart of U.S.-Russia relations, which Putin himself said Sept. 28 were at a “low level.” Stephen Sestanovic, U.S. ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union from 1997 to 2001, said that the wariness won’t end anytime soon.
“In Washington most people still fear that in Syria, Putin will make a bad situation worse,” he said.