It is Syrian Quagmire 2.0. And in the view of American officials, it is anything but an upgrade.
Four years into Syria’s civil war and more than a year into a U.S.-led bombing campaign against the Islamic State terrorist group, the U.S. military now faces a new, potentially far more dangerous prospect: backing the opposite side of the Russian Air Force.
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Russian airstrikes inside Syria on Wednesday were seen as an effort to prop up the embattled Syrian dictator Bashar Assad — its chief ally in the region — despite recent assurances from President Vladimir Putin that Russia’s military objective would be to also help defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIL.
And if Moscow deliberately or accidentally kills members of the U.S.-backed New Syrian Force, a group of moderate elements that Washington hopes will ultimately topple Assad while beating back Islamic militants, it would put President Barack Obama and his national security team in a very dicey position.
White House: We don’t know who Russia is targeting in Syria
White House: We don’t know who Russia is targeting in Syria
The Pentagon has said it plans to pause sending fresh units of the New Syrian Force into the country as it reviews potential changes to that program. But at least 70 fighters are still somewhere in Syria. Many other “moderate” Syrian fighters have been trained under a secret program by the CIA, increasing the danger that some U.S.-supported groups might come under Russian attack.
“If his first military campaign, his first military action in Syria is to bomb non-ISIL organizations that are against Assad, that sends a pretty sharp message to us that we don’t have the same objectives in Syria,” Michael McFaul, who stepped down as U.S. ambassador to Russia in 2014, told POLITICO.
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter lashed out at Russia on Wednesday for escalating the conflict, saying its actions were equivalent to “pouring gasoline on a fire.”
Carter’s was the most vocal broadside against the Russian military action that took many in Washington off guard and only deepened suspicion of Russian intentions just two days after Putin told Obama that he too was committed to defeating the Islamic State.
“We have been observing Russian activities, and I don’t want to go into detail about that at this time, but one of the reasons the Russian position is contradictory, is exactly the potential for them to strike as they may well have, in places where ISIL is not present,” Carter said. “Others are present. The result of this kind of action will inevitably be simply to be to inflame the civil war in Syria.”
Soon after the strikes, Pentagon officials complained that Moscow had ignored its own appeal to Washington to open military-to-military channels in order to “de-conflict” Russian units and American aircraft targeting the Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq.
The only notice given was an hour before by a Russian officer to the U.S. Embassy in neighboring Iraq.
“It completely bypasses every bit of legitimate discussion we’ve had with them so far,” a defense official who was not authorized to speak publicly told POLITICO.
Yet the Obama administration also found itself taking incoming fire.
Before the smoke barely cleared from Russian airstrikes they sparked a political brushfire in Washington, with critics blaming Obama’s policies — or, in their words, lack of them — for inviting Russia’s destabilizing moves.
The airstrikes signaled more than just another chapter in the long, bloody Syrian conflict, they argued: They represented Putin inserting himself into a power vacuum in the Middle East that Obama left with a feckless, half-hearted policy.
“It did not have to be this way — but this is the inevitable consequence of hollow words, red lines crossed, tarnished moral influence, leading from behind and a total lack of American leadership,” thundered Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, in a blistering speech on the Senate floor.
He excoriated Obama over what he called the historic loss of American power in the Middle East and the concomitant gain by Russia, which has also established an intelligence cooperation cell with the Iraqi government in Baghdad.
McCain blamed what he called Obama’s failure to follow up seriously on his promise to “degrade and destroy” ISIL in both Syria and Iraq. The U.S. doesn’t need to send ground troops to Syria and Iraq to fight the terror network, McCain said, but it does need to do much more to help forces on the ground there and make clear to Moscow that the U.S. retains the power to influence events in the Middle East.
McCain was joined by others who were equally critical of the Russian actions as well as the Obama administration’s handling of the four-year civil war that turned Syria into a breeding ground for Islamic militants, has demoralized Syrian moderates seeking to overthrow Assad, fueled the rise of ISIL as well as other terrorist groups linked to Al Qaeda, led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, and set off one of the worst refugee crises in a generation.
Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, also a member of the Armed Services Committee, called the Russian military action “a naked effort by one dictator to protect another and crush moderate Syrian opposition forces.”
In a statement he also laid some of the blame on the doorstep of the White House.
“Putin has this opening because of the absence of any U.S. strategy in Syria,” said Cotton, a former Army officer. “The U.S. must reject Russia’s interference and rally our partners to do the same.”
Administration officials sought to tamp down the political fallout — and insisted the Russian moves were a sign that Assad’s grip on power was weaker than ever.
“We have known for quite some time. … We’ve had active public discussions in here about the significant deployment of military assets and personnel by Russia into Syria. And I don’t think it’s particularly surprising that that Russia is using those new military capabilities,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest.
Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking at the United Nations in New York, said Russia’s escalation in Syria was proof of the weakness of Assad, whom Washington says must leave power in a negotiated settlement to end the Syrian civil war.
They emphasized the position Obama has laid out and reinforced earlier this week at the U.N. — that Russia should not help Assad retain his seat because he has forfeited any chance of continuing to rule Syria.
“The U.S. is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict, but we must recognize there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a simple return to the prewar status quo,” Kerry said.
That, however, appears to be Russia’s design in Syria. According to initial reports, its warplanes on Wednesday attacked anti-government forces near the city of Homs not linked to ISIL, confirming for McCain and other critics that Putin cannot be trusted and that while he may be interested in weakening the terror group, he’s just as interested in becoming a “kingmaker” there and expanding his influence in the region.
Earnest told reporters at the White House that the Defense Department was establishing military-to-military channels to “de-conflict” Russian and American operations in Syria, but Pentagon officials said that’s not so.
In fact, after Moscow reached out to ask for such communications, it ignored them Wednesday when it launched its operations, defense officials told POLITICO.
Russia advised the U.S. that it planned to begin air operations by sending a three-star general to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to announce that the warplanes were going to take off soon, one defense official said. The Russian leader warned American units to keep clear of the area but U.S. warplanes continued their attacks in Syria as normal, the Pentagon said.
“We intend to continue our air operations unimpeded,” Carter told reporters.
He also had a prediction: “This Russian action in Syria can and will backfire very badly on Russia.”
But in the short term a situation that was already considered out of control and with few readily available solutions, the entry of Russian forces in the conflict was seen as a harbinger of even more perilous days ahead.
“We don’t have much choice at this point but to figure out to co-exist” with the Russians, Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, told POLITICO. “We shouldn’t go away because we still need to fight ISIL. And how we coexist with them is going to be very, very difficult.