Russia moved very quickly today to begin carrying out airstrikes inside Syria. First, Vladimir Putin got authorization from his parliament for the use of force in Syria:
Earlier on Wednesday, Russia’s upper house of parliament granted President Vladimir Putin authorisation to deploy the country’s air force to Syria, according to the head of presidential administration.
Sergey Ivanov said that the Federation Council backed Putin’s request for approval unanimously.
“The operation’s military goal is exclusively air support of the Syrian armed forces in their fight against ISIL,” he said.
…which means that Russia’s Syrian intervention has more legislative authorization than America’s does, but I digress.
Then the strikes commenced, and here’s where things turn interesting/worrisome. While Russia claims that all of its strikes targeted ISIS, nobody outside of Russia seems to think they hit ISIS at all:
Washington quickly criticized the airstrikes, which the Pentagon said apparently hit areas where Islamic State militants — ostensibly the intended targets — probably were not present. But U.S. officials said Moscow’s moves would not change a U.S.-led air campaign targeting Islamic State strongholds in Syria.
Not good. But the situation in Syria is so fluid that the Pentagon’s assessment could be in error. Is there a more detailed analysis out there?
So this is where it gets muddy. The Russian strikes reportedly hit targets in Hama Province as well as a couple of towns in Homs Province, Talbiseh and Zaafarana. ISIS controls territory in Homs Province, but according to analysts cited by Zack Beauchamp at Vox, they’re nowhere near those two towns (one of the Russian strikes in Hama may have been in an area where some ISIS fighters are located). I’m not here to dispute those analysts, but it’s worth noting that one of the pieces he cites is this one, from Genevieve Casagrande at the Institute for the Study of War. The ISW is the former home of Elizabeth O’Bagy, who was so keen on getting America into an anti-Assad military engagement in Syria that she pushed a lot of lies both about the state of the Syrian insurgency and her own academic credentials before she got caught and fired. ISW shouldn’t be tagged with her misdeeds forever, of course, but they didn’t hire her for her moderate views on the Syrian situation. This is an organization that has a pretty clear agenda, and it’s not one that’s friendly to Bashar al-Assad or the Russians. So while their analysis of today’s Russian strikes may well be accurate, you should probably grab your salt shaker while you’re reading it.
In this case, of course, ISW’s reporting is going up against the public pronouncements of the Russian government (delivered here courtesy of their English-language news outlet, RT) and, look, your mileage may vary, but I’m not inclined to put a lot of stock in Russia’s credibility on this point either. For one thing, it’s never been clear whether Russia even makes an operational distinction between ISIS and other jihadi groups like Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. After all, all those groups share a couple of key things in common from Moscow’s perspective: they’re fighting Russia’s pal, Assad, and they have or could conceivably have some Chechens fighting in their ranks.
For another thing, why these targets? If Russia were solely looking to target ISIS, why not strike Raqqa, the group’s “capital”? Why not Tadmur, its real stronghold in Homs (actually…well, see below)? Why not Deir Ezzor, where it’s still fighting with the last pocket of Assad’s forces remaining in the eastern part of the country? Why not try to push ISIS out of the Jazal oil field, which was the last oil field under Assad’s control until ISIS took it a couple of weeks ago? Why pick these three targets, where ISIS may not even have any assets and where, incidentally, the chance for spillover civilian casualties (which were reportedly considerable) was far greater than in some of the other places I just mentioned? Just to throw a little more fuel on the fire, on-the-ground reports from the FSA back up the idea that Russia’s targets today were not ISIS related.
While I get that there’s a strong anti-Russia sentiment in the US foreign policy establishment that’s going to paint Russia’s actions here in the worst possible light, I’m still inclined to believe that Russia’s actions today, and presumably moving forward, are about propping Assad up against all his enemies, including (and maybe especially) groups other than ISIS. Which ultimately means groups that the US has been hoping/trying to use as proxies against ISIS and as the core of an eventual (?) political transition in Damascus. And if Russia is moving advanced air defenses into Syria (which isn’t about countering the almighty yet totally nonexistent ISIS Air Force, you know), then somebody needs to put the brakes on this situation before Russian and US interests really come into conflict and something unthinkable happens.
EDIT: The Wall Street Journal reported that Tadmur/Palmyra was hit with airstrikes that may have been Russian (as was another ISIS-controlled town in Homs Province called Qaratayn), but says that responsibility for those strikes was claimed by Assad’s forces (which doesn’t preclude the possibility that they were really Russian strikes). I’m getting a headache from all this stuff.
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