The reason behind Washington’s silence over the latest reports, claiming that Russia’s bombings in Syria were not against ISIS troops as Putin claims, but against Syrian moderate groups whose weapons are supplied by the CIA, still remains a mystery.
What is currently happening in Syria and the reaction of the world to recent developments sounds almost like a tragic comedy. The Russian government made a “game changing” maneuver in the civil war in Syria, engaging in military operations in support of the Assad regime while the rest of the world was hoping their rhetoric would defeat the regime.
From the very first day of reports about the Russian military buildup, it was apparent for many that it aimed to change the situation on the ground, transform the geopolitics of the regime and act with a longer term strategy in the country. Moscow first denied reports of the military buildup, but after reports of increasing Russian military activity in Syria, Moscow declared that its military aims to help the Assad regime fight the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). However, this statement was soon proved to be a cover when Russian war planes in Syria started to attack forces fighting against Assad instead of striking ISIS. In an analysis of the Russian strikes, the Institute for the Study of War concluded that the primary goal of the attacks seem to be to support Assad instead of fighting ISIS. The analysis says: “Russian airstrikes continue to primarily target Syrian opposition groups in areas far from ISIS’s core terrain. These strikes are concentrated in northwestern Syria, particularly in rebel-held areas of Idlib province and the northern countryside of Hama province. The Russian Ministry of Defense claimed only three airstrikes targeting positions in known ISIS-held terrain between Oct. 1 and Oct. 3. However, local reporting only confirmed two of these strikes. The Russian air campaign in Syria appears to be largely focused on supporting the Assad regime and itsfight against the Syrian opposition rather than combating ISIS.”
So now, from the Russian operations in Syria it becomes clear that the main goal is to support Assad and degrade and destroy opposition forces. It was reported in the last few days that opposition forces were increasingly concerned about the start of a major air campaign by Russia Syria. Some other sources have also reported an increasing flow of Shiite fighters to regime-controlled areas. While Russia was taking these steps in Syria, the Russian government and President Vladimir Putin also shifted the public debate in Syria from the Ukrainian conflict to the fight against terrorism and ISIS. Together with troop relocation and the construction of new air bases, the shift in the propaganda campaign demonstrates it is more than some operational change, but a more planned action on the part of Putin.
As mentioned in my previous piece on Russian-U.S. relations in terms of Syria, the U.S. position concerning Russian actions in Syria had been very ambivalent, and in some cases contradictory. However, developments in the last three weeks show that Russia’s actions generated a sense of urgency, but have not so far lead to a consistent reaction from the U.S.
In the aftermath of the release of news reports about Russian military buildup, foreign policymakers and administration officials tried to contact their Russian counterparts to make sense of Russia’s actions. However, the first statements demonstrated an increasing concern among U.S. policymakers about potential problems that could take place as a result of Russia’s actions in Syria. U.S. President Barack Obama made his first statement about the Russian actions on Sept. 11 and said they are doomed to failure. He said: “It appears now that Assad is worried enough that he’s inviting Russian advisors in and Russian equipment in. And that won’t change our core strategy, which is to continue to put pressure on [ISIS] in Iraq and Syria, but we are going to be engaging Russia to let them know that you can’t continue to double down on a strategy that’s doomed to failure.” However, he still left a door open for Russia to be involved in finding a resolution to the conflict. He said: “And if they are willing to work with us and the 60-nation coalition that we’ve put together, then there’s the possibility of a political settlement in which Assad would be transitioned out and a new coalition of moderate, secular and inclusive forces could come together and restore order in the country. … This is going to be a long discussion that we’ll be having with the Russians, but it is not going to prevent us from continuing to go after [ISIS] very hard.”
Obama met with Putin in New York following these statements. In addition to the awkward lunch and their meeting, the world watched a duel of words at the U.N. about the conflict in Syria. While Putin was calling Assad the only alternative, Obama called Assad a tyrant. But the awkwardness did not end there. Just an hour before Russian strikes in Syria, a Russian general informed U.S. officials in Baghdad about the Russian strikes. In addition to this shock, early reports show that the real target was not ISIS, but opposition forces, including those that were vetted by the CIA.
U.S. officials were once more caught off guard about this development. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and said: “It is one thing obviously to be targeting [ISIS]; we’re concerned obviously if that is not what is happening.” However, again Kerry left an open door and said, “The U.S. is ready to welcome Russian efforts if they reflect a genuine commitment to defeat ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups, especially al-Nusra Front.”
U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s statements were no less ambiguous. He called Russia’s actions “pouring gasoline on the fire.” He also called the way that Russia informed the U.S. about their airstrikes “not professional.” Just like the Obama, Carter also called the Russian approach in Syria something “doomed to fail.” So until now, the only meaningful development in U.S.-Russian relations seems to be “de-confliction” processes to avoid any form of accidental incidents between the military forces of the two countries.
Together with its military buildup and strikes, Russia’s announcement that it will launch an intelligence-sharing process with Iraq, Syria and Iran became another major surprise to U.S. officials. After these developments and increasing criticism within the U.S. about the failure of U.S. policy in the region, Obama organized a press conference to announce that he did not fail in his dealings with Putin on Syria. He said: “Mr. Putin had to go into Syria not out of strength, but out of weakness because his client Mr. Assad was crumbling and it was insufficient for him simply to send them arms and money. Now he’s got to put in his own planes and his own pilots. And the notion that he put forward a plan and that somehow the international community sees that as viable because there’s a vacuum there – I didn’t see after he made that speech in the United Nations suddenly the 60-nation coalition that we have start lining up behind him. Iran and Assad make up Mr. Putin’s coalition at the moment. The rest of the world makes up ours.” However, once again he did not forget to leave a door open for Russian cooperation. Obama also said: “It does not mean that we could not see Mr. Putin begin to recognize that it is in their interests to broker a political settlement. And as I said in New York, we’re prepared to work with the Russians and the Iranians as well as our partners who are part of the anti-[ISIS] coalition. Nobody pretends it’s going to be easy. But I think it is still possible.”
So, after all these developments on the ground, the Russian position and motivation seem to be easier to understand, but after all these statements from U.S. officials, it is still quite difficult to understand the U.S.’s position about the latest developments.
This article was first published in the Daily Sabah on October 5, 2015.