Russian strikes in Syria spark new crisis with Washington

Russia unleashes airstrikes in Syria
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Story highlights

  • It's apparent that Russia and the U.S. have widely conflicting ultimate goals in Syria
  • Russia is putting together an alternative anti-ISIS coalition, with Iran and the Syrian government
  • The question is whether Russia will want to help fashion a post-Assad Syria

(CNN)The first Russian airstrikes in Syria have demonstrated the gulf between U.S. and Russian goals in Syria. They were unilateral and focused on areas in Homs and Hama provinces far from where the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has a presence. Russian officials warned the United States to stay out of Syrian airspace while the missions were underway.

There was an angry response from Washington and other Western capitals. U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said at a Pentagon news conference that the Russian strategy is "doomed to failure" and would "simply inflame the civil war."
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters at the United Nations that "the international coalition is striking Daesh (as ISIS is often called), France is striking Daesh, Bashar al-Assad only a little bit, and for the moment, the Russians not at all."
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    Capturing the ugly mood, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said before a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in New York: "Don't listen to the Pentagon about Russian strikes."
    "Our answer is honest and frank," he said later. "At the request of Syrian government, we're helping them to fight ISIS and other terrorist groups." He gave no definition of "other," but it apparently includes anyone deemed a threat to regime forces.
    The Russian strikes on Wednesday -- eight in all, according to the Defense Ministry -- were in areas where al Qaeda's affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra, has a presence, as do other factions including the Islamist Ahrar al Sham and elements of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, or FSA.
    Some strikes were around the town of Tabiseh in an area that straddles the critical north-south road between Homs and Hama. It's an area the Syrian regime has been targeting recently as it tries to recover an important route for resupplying its strongholds.
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    Torbjorn Soltvedt with risk analyst Verisk Maplecroft says the regime's military efforts are "increasingly concentrated in northern Latakia and along the north-south highway."
    "Maintaining control over the highway is essential for keeping Damascus linked with the coastal region as well as reinforcing troops in Aleppo, Soltvedt told CNN.
    By analyzing video from the Russian Defense Ministry and comparing it with satellite images, it's clear that another heavy strike hit the outskirts of Ltamenah, a town near Hama. It hit not one of the Islamist groups but a little-known group within the FSA, Tajamu Al Ezza, which supports coalition airstrikes against ISIS.
    So there are now three separate air campaigns in Syria: al-Assad's air force, Russian combat aircraft (mainly Su-24s) and the coalition strikes. Those of al-Assad and the Russians are clearly coordinated. But Peter Felstead, editor of IHS-Jane's Defence Weekly told CNN: "I can't see US and UK air assets co-ordinating their operations with Russia, since the latter has a completely different agenda in Syria that's all about protecting a client state."
    There is a risk of misunderstandings in these more crowded skies. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday there has been "no real effort by the Russian side to de-conflict the Russian airstrikes in Syria with the ongoing U.S.-led coalition."
    Kerry and Lavrov met late Wednesday and agreed there must be contacts on "de-confliction," but the two sides' ultimate goals in Syria remain far apart.

    It's all about al-Assad

    Russian President Vladimir Putin's argument is that the West's strategy is bankrupt, and that getting rid of al-Assad is not a policy in itself because it could lead ISIS to the gates of Damascus and sentence Syrians to life under the "caliphate."
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    He has a point, according to Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. "Regime change could lead to regime collapse, paving the way to the disappearance of order in Damascus and to the establishment of a caliphate under ISIS," he writes in the Financial Times.
    So in Moscow's view, it was entirely legitimate to come to the aid of an ally who had requested help, especially as al-Assad's control had been reduced to some 25% of Syrian territory.
    Western leaders still say al-Assad must go; he is part of the problem and morally responsible for the death of tens of thousands of Syrians. British Prime Minister David Cameron said in New York that al-Assad "has helped create this conflict and this migration crisis. He is one of the great recruiting sergeants for ISIL."
    UK: Maybe OK for Assad to stay in 'transitional period'
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    But there does appear to be growing flexibility among Western governments over how any transition would be managed. Last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond talked of a transitional role for al-Assad. A French statement stressing the need for "a political transition, which combines elements of the regime and the moderate opposition," hints at a similar drift.
    And former White House adviser Philip Gordon acknowledges that what's needed is "a new diplomatic process that brings all the key external actors to the table and agrees on a messy compromise to deescalate the conflict -- even if that means putting off agreement on the question of Assad."
    The absence of a moderate alternative to al-Assad, not least because of the repeated failure of the U.S. to support a plausible rebel brigade (or even battalion), has also prodded other regional governments such as Egypt to accept that al-Assad may have to be part of the solution.
    Moscow is probably calculating that its decisive backing for al-Assad now will only hasten this process, putting it in the driver's seat.

    Russia as a 'great power'

    That fulfills a key goal for Putin, says Haass, because he is "anxious as ever to demonstrate that Russia is a great power that cannot be ignored (and) is exploiting the vacuum left in large part by the U.S. and European governments."
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    In essence, Russia is putting together an alternative anti-ISIS coalition, with Iran and the Syrian government. Its relationship with Iran -- another important player in supporting al-Assad -- gives it additional leverage.
    In July, there was a flurry of meetings between Russian and Iranian ministers to agree on a "common position" on Syria that envisages a ceasefire and some form of transitional government.
    Iranian President Hassan Rouhani says he does "not see a coalition between Iran and Russia in the war against terrorism in Syria," but there is certainly a higher degree of coordination.
    Iraq announced Sunday that it was also part of this group; its Joint Military Operations Command Iraq disclosed a new intelligence-sharing agreement with Russia, Iran and Syria in the battle against ISIS, in addition to its support for the U.S.-led coalition.
    The question is whether at some point Russia too will want to help fashion a post-Assad Syria -- or, in pursuit of its own narrower interests, settle for nothing more than an Alawite Mediterranean enclave from which it can project power.

    The long haul

    Russia can play the long game if it chooses to, according to Peter Felstead of HIS-Janes. "Latakia is safely within government control and, being on the coast, can be resupplied by sea. It's a secure position from which to fly combat missions in support of Assad's forces," he told CNN.
    Russia also has plenty of airlift capability, analysts say, though it has been affected by the fact that Antonov, the company that supplies many of its transport planes, is Ukrainian. (Antonov recently spoke of the "interruption of cooperation with the north neighbor.")
    CNN tracking of recent flights between Moscow and Latakia shows that the Russian air force has been using elderly Tu-154 planes on Syria runs, some of which had previously been taken out of service. Russian military transports also have to fly a long, circuitous route over Iran and Iraq to reach Latakia, as several countries have denied overflight rights.
    And Philip Stack, who follows the Middle East for analysts Verisk Maplecroft, says Russian combat aircraft in Syria may be at risk. "It is possible that some of them are optimized for suppression of air defenses, such as the SU-24s. But when flying close support missions, even advanced aircraft can be vulnerable."
    But the Institute for the Study of War says there are signs that the Russians are in it for the long haul. They are upgrading their naval facility in Tartus, down the coast from Latakia. The Russian newspaper Kommersant reported last week that 1,700 Russian military "specialists" and security personnel are equipping and securing the facility and rebuilding its dock.
    Christopher Harmer at ISW says that "at a minimum, recent Russian activity in Tartus indicates that Russia views its military intervention in Syria as a long-term commitment rather than a short-term limited operation."

    Playing to the crowd

    There are also domestic considerations for Putin, says Ulrich Schmid, a professor of Russian history at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland.
    "Putin has used the patriotic wave in Russia after the annexation of Crimea as a resource of power," he says.
    "This resource is limited, so Putin wants to refill the tank of national pride with new fuel," but not to the extent of putting ground troops in Syria.
    Schmid told CNN that Ukraine is a busted flush for Putin. "He cannot aggravate the situation in Ukraine anymore, because the Russian public sees the situation in Ukraine more and more as a tragedy." And so Syria represents to the new patriotic fuel.
    Russian involvement is likely, in the short term at least, to increase the amount of ordnance being dropped, the destruction and the civilian casualties. It will complicate efforts to create safe zones for the internally displaced in the north, a major goal for Turkey, and could thereby worsen the refugee crisis. It might even have the unintended consequence of strengthening ISIS on the battlefield, if the Russians pummel rival groups such as al Nusra in areas where it is competing with ISIS.
    The Russian strikes will probably galvanize the coalition into more intense action. Kerry said the coalition would "dramatically accelerate our efforts," with an increase in strikes against ISIS targets in northwest Syria.
    In the long run, when all sides tire of a military stalemate, they may reinvest in a political solution for Syria. If Russia, Iran, the United States and Europe were to agree on a blueprint, al-Assad would have little choice but to accept it.
    But as someone once said in a different context, "In the long run, we are all dead."