Russia Continues to Frustrate Everyone (Except Assad) in Syria

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Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad
Photo: Pool BENAINOUS/HOUNSFIELD/Pool BENAINOUS/HOUNSFIELD/GAMMA

During his speech at the U.N. General Assembly last month, Vladimir Putin said it was essential that the international organization band together, World War II–style, and fight the terrorist group gaining power and influence in the Middle East — the Islamic State. 

However, the Russian president also noted that he disagreed with how many of the countries currently fighting ISIS were going about their business. "We think it is an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces," he added, "who are valiantly fighting terrorism face to face."

Since that address, the Russian military has conducted many air strikes in Syria. However, instead of targeting the Islamic State strongholds that the U.S. and its allies have been going after, these planes seemed to be steadily making the entire international chess board in Syria much more complicated.

“Greater than 90 percent of the strikes that we’ve seen them take to date have not been against [ISIS] or al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists,” a State Department spokesperson said on Wednesday. “And that’s not a good future for Syria. It’s also, as we’ve said before, we believe a mistake for Russia, because not only are they going to be exacerbating sectarian tensions there in Syria, but they’re potentially exacerbating sectarian tensions in Russia itself. They’re putting themselves at greater risk.”

And Russia isn’t using air strikes alone to help the pro-regime forces protecting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. NATO officials said that the country’s navy got involved for the first time on Wednesday, shooting missiles from the Caspian Sea. The AP reported on Wednesday that Iran played a role in getting Russia to start air strikes in Syria, and that the two countries plan to share their intelligence on the Middle East. 

Yet Iran might have second thoughts about its support after at least four Russian cruise missiles fired from the Caspian Sea allegedly missed their targets in Syria and hit northern Iran, unnamed U.S. officials told CNN. The missles are believed to have landed in a rural area, but exactly where the missiles fell or if there were any casualties is still unconfirmed.

Russia is apparently deploying a new missil called the Kalibr for the first time, so, according to a U.S. official, such a mishap was "expected." Iran has yet to address the alleged misfire, but the Russian defense ministry responded by posting a statement that insulted CNN, extolled the precision of Russian military technology, and dripped with sarcasm: "Unlike CNN, we don’t report quoting anonymous sources, but we show launches of our missiles and the targets they hit in real-time mode … No matter how unpleasant and unexpected it is for our colleagues in the Pentagon and Langley, our strike yesterday with precision-guided weapons at ISIS infrastructure in Syria hit its targets."

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Mourners carry the body of a Syrian man following a Russian airstrike.Photo: Ameer Alhalbi/Ameer Alhalbi/NurPhoto

All of this has not made the U.S. very happy. The Pentagon and White House have no intention of teaming up with Russia in Syria in the near future. “We are not prepared to cooperate on strategy which, as we explained, is flawed, tragically flawed, on the Russians’ part,” Defense secretary Ash Carter said in Rome. White House press secretary Josh Earnest added that the U.S. really doesn’t want to fight Russia in Syria either. “Syria is not going to turn into a proxy war between Russia and the United States. That certainly would not be consistent with our interests.”

However, U.S. forces have had to be hypercognizant of what Russia has been up to since their planes are sharing the same airspace. In the past week, the U.S. had to divert two F-16s leaving Turkey to make sure they didn’t accidentally get too close to Russian planes — especially since they were worried that the Russian planes weren’t going to exactly follow standard safety protocol. The U.S. sent Russia a plan laying out basic common courtesies for each military to coordinate on — like using the same radio frequency in scary situations so pilots could communicate, and reaching an understanding on how airspace would be used. Russia didn’t respond

According to Reuters, congressional intelligence committees are investigating how aware the U.S. was of Russia’s plans. One source told them, “They saw some of this going on but didn’t appreciate the magnitude.”

Putin did say yesterday that he was willing to talk about diplomatic solutions to the situation in Syria; however, Russian officials have also said in the last week that the country’s military is also willing to expand its operation into Iraq if Iraqi leadership asks for help. 

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A fighter from the Free Syrian Army takes position following clashes with the pro-regime forces, in the old quarter of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo.Photo: Ameer Alhalbi/Ameer Alhalbi/NurPhoto

In other news, Turkey is getting pretty freaked out by Russia’s presence in the region. The country says that Russia has broken the rules and entered the country’s airspace. NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said during a meeting on Thursday that the organization “is ready and able to defend all allies, including Turkey, against any threats.” Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said this week he was thinking about shopping elsewhere for gas; Russia currently provides about 60 percent of the country’s supply.

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Smoke rises during clashes between forces loyal to Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, and the Army of Islam fighters, on the eastern mountains of Qalamoun overlooking the town of Douma.Photo: BASSAM KHABIEH/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

Britain is also planning on sending troops to Eastern Europe because of the increasing tension between Russia and its western neighbors. U.K. defense secretary Michael Fallon said on Wednesday that “this is further reassurance for our allies on the eastern flank of NATO — for the Baltic states and for Poland. That is part of our more persistent presence on the eastern side of NATO to respond to any further provocation and aggression.”

In other words, it looks like things are going to keep getting much messier in the Middle East before they get better.

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Residents inspect damage from what activists said was an airstrike by forces loyal to Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, on the town of Douma.Photo: BASSAM KHABIEH/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

Meanwhile, while the international playing field in Syria keeps getting more crowded, refugees from the country continue to escape to Europe. Right now the continent is figuring out how to make sure that the economic migrants who are denied asylum actually end up leaving Europe — only about 40 percent do right now. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office is taking direct control of managing the crisis inside the country. On Wednesday, however, she reiterated in a speech to European Parliament that this wasn’t a task that her office could accomplish by itself around the country. “We must now resist the temptation to fall back into national government action,” Merkel said. “Right now we need more Europe! Germany and France are ready. Only together will we in Europe succeed in reducing the global causes of flight and expulsion. We can protect our external borders successfully only if we do something to deal with the many crises in our neighborhood.”

This post has been updated throughout.