By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley
Moscow took its muscle flexing in Syria to a whole new level on Wednesday, launching 26 cruise missiles from four warships in the Caspian Sea to hit targets in Syria. (The Kurdish Peshmerga claims to have filmed a few of the missiles racing over northern Iraq.) The strikes, which the Russians say caused no civilian casualties, were part of a larger Syrian ground offensive to push toward the city of Idlib, which has been a stronghold for a coalition of primarily Islamist rebels.
The Russians have also parked 10 warships in the eastern Mediterranean, and have placed mobile rocket launchers, attack helicopters, and artillery pieces around government-controlled areas in Latakia, a Syrian government haven. And Russian airplanes remain aggressive in the skies. After repeatedly violating Turkish airspace over the weekend and locking their radars on Turkish warplanes, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said on Wednesday at least one American fighter plane had to redirect its route to avoid coming into contact with one of Moscow’s warplanes.
Here we are! The cruise missile launches caught the American Central Command by surprise, an unfortunate situation in a region that is seeing dozens of U.S. and allied flights a day conducting bombing runs against Islamic State targets. Both analysts and some American intelligence officials have also expressed some surprise over the range of the Russian missiles, and their trajectory, passing over Iraq and Iran.
Russian jets have also shadowed U.S. Predator drones over Syria on three separate occasions in recent days, though they haven’t fired at the drones or tried to impede their flight path in any way. But again, the moves came as a surprise. “The first time it happened, we thought the Russians got lucky,” one U.S. official told Fox news. Then it happened two more times.”
No change in talks. Still, U.S. and Russian military officials aren’t talking about how to keep their jets and drones from bumping into one another in the skies above Syria. “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 while meeting with Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti in Rome on Wednesday.
The two sides have debated the conditions under which they would hold another round of talks, following one hour-long video conference last week. Washington says the discussion should be focused narrowly on aviation safety, while Moscow wants to expand the conversation to include cooperation on airstrikes against the Islamic State and other jihadist groups operating in Syria.
Targeting who? While Russia insists that it’s hitting Islamic State targets, State Department spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday, “greater than 90% of the strikes that we’ve seen them take to date have not been against Isil or al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists.”
So, what is the Russian endgame? FP’s Colum Lynch offers that one of President Vladimir Putin’s prime motivations is to portray Moscow as a reliable partner to other Middle East regimes who have grown uneasy over the depth of Washington’s commitment to them, with the added benefit of embarrassing President Barack Obama. The key quote: “The region is falling apart, and states are collapsing, and the Russians are willing to intervene to protect their interests and assert their power, and the United States is not,” said Andrew Tabler, an expert on Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.