Russian President Vladimir Putin brushed aside the empty rhetoric of U.S. President Barack Obama by deploying an increasing number of armed forces in the Middle East and launching air strikes to defend Russia’s beleaguered ally Bashar al-Assad.
Russia carried out its first air attacks against Islamic State targets in Syria, hitting arms and ammunition stores and transport and communication equipment, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major-General Igor Konashenkov said by phone. Syrian state-run TV cited an unnamed military source as saying Russian jets struck several Islamic State targets in Syria’s central Homs and Hama provinces. U.S. and French officials questioned whether Russia hadn’t instead targeted other opposition groups fighting Assad.
It’s the second time in as many years that Putin has sought and gained approval to use force abroad as he seeks to carve out a bigger role in global affairs. While his actions in Ukraine last year drew international condemnation, he pushed for a wider alliance to counter Islamic State during a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama this week.
“The main task is to fight terrorism and to support the legitimate government of Syria in the fight against terrorism and extremism,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters during a conference call. The Assad government had requested Russian military assistance, he said.
Putin won unanimous approval from legislators in the upper house of parliament to use Russian armed forces in Syria, Kremlin Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov said Wednesday on state television. Russia will use its air force, not ground troops and the mission will be for a limited duration, Ivanov said, without specifying the duration. Strikes will target Islamic State, including several thousand Russians fighting for the militant group who could be a threat if they returned to their homeland, he said.
Russia’s military involvement “helps increase pressure on the U.S. and Europe to accept that the new parameters of a political settlement in Syria must include the Assad regime at the helm of power and that the settlement will be defined by Russia,” Ayham Kamel, Middle East and North Africa director at Eurasia Group, said by phone from London.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry discussed Syria by phone on Wednesday with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, who later called for coordination in the fight against Islamic State and presented a resolution at a United Nations Security Council meeting in New York. Lavrov called for the world to create a “strong bulwark” against Islamic State. On Monday, Putin told the UN he supports a parallel political transition in Syria, where the Soviet Union deployed about 6,000 troops in 1983 and 1984 to help protect it from Israel.
“Considering the rapid increase in the threat of Islamic State, practical coordination of all anti-terrorist forces must be set up now,” Lavrov told the Security Council. Russia is “ready to establish permanent channels of communication” with the U.S. and other countries fighting Islamic State “to ensure maximum efficiency in the fight against terrorist groups,” he said.
Russian strikes will be in support of operations by the Syrian army and won’t target opposition forces other than those of Islamic State, Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the upper house’s International Affairs Committee, told state television.
“This concerns Syria and is not about achieving any foreign policy goals or satisfying some ambitions, as we are regularly accused of by our Western partners, but only the national interests of the Russian Federation,” Ivanov said.
Russia, which has its only naval facility outside the former Soviet Union in the Syrian port of Tartus, has been sending troops and weapons to bolster Assad, a longtime ally. In recent weeks, Russia has deployed more than two dozen fighter aircraft, attack helicopters, surface-to-air missile defense systems and hundreds of troops to a base in Syria, according to U.S. officials.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told lawmakers in Paris that Wednesday’s strikes didn’t target Islamic State, and Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said at the UN that the targets had to be verified. A senior U.S. official said Russia had appeared to hit other opposition groups, rather than Islamic State, the Associated Press reported. The official, who wasn’t authorized to discuss the attacks publicly, said Islamic State militants aren’t in the western part of the country where the strikes happened.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Tuesday instructed his staff to open lines of communication with Russia to avoid any clashes between U.S.-led coalition planes and Russian aircraft. U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said Russian officials requested that U.S. aircraft avoid Syrian airspace while Russia starts air strikes.
“The US-led coalition will continue to fly missions over Iraq and Syria as planned and in support of our international mission to degrade and destroy ISIL,” Kirby said on Wednesday, using an alternate acronym for Islamic State.
Russia would do better to join the existing U.S.-led coalition bombing Islamic State in Iraq and Syria than start a second coalition in support of Assad, Saudi Foreign MinisterAdel al-Jubeir said. Saudi Arabia supports a political transition away from the Syrian leader, though that could take “a long time,” he said.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said anyone who provided arms to either side in Syria were “only contributing to further misery – and the risk of unintended consequences.” U.K. Premier David Cameron said his country would look very carefully at the Russian actions, and that if they were part of the international coalition fighting Islamic State, “then that is all to the good.”
“If, on the other hand, this is action against the Free Syrian Army in support of Assad the dictator, then obviously that is a retrograde step,” Cameron told reporters during a visit to Jamaica on Wednesday. “But let us see exactly what has happened.”