ESCALATING

Putin Hits West’s Rebels Instead of ISIS

A Russian general told U.S. officials to quit flying over Syria just before Moscow’s air force dropped bombs on Western-backed forces.

09.30.15 5:08 PM ET

A Russian general asked the U.S. to remove its planes from Syrian airspace Wednesday, just hours before Russian airstrikes began there.

The Russian three-star general, who was part of the newly formed intelligence cell with Iraq, Iran, and the Syrian government, arrived in Baghdad at 9 a.m. local time and informed U.S. officials that Russian strikes would be starting imminently—and that the U.S. should refrain from conducting strikes and move any personnel out. The only notice the U.S. received about his visit was a phone call one hour earlier.

The Russian strikes were centered about the city of Homs, according to initial accounts in the local press and in social media. That’s significant, because Homs is not known to be an ISIS stronghold.

"The northern countryside of Hama has no presence of ISIS at all and is under the control of the Free Syrian Army," Major Jamil al-Saleh of the Free Syrian Army told Reuters. U.S. officials corroborated this account to The Daily Beast.

The FSA has receieved U.S.-made anti-tank missiles; the CIA and Pentagon have been recruiting FSA soldiers as proxies against ISIS.

“There is no Islamic State in this area,” another FSA commander told Reuters. “The Russians are applying great pressure on the revolution. This will strengthen terrorism, everyone will head toward extremism. Any support for Assad in this way is strengthening terrorism.”

Even Defense Secretary Ash Carter was forced to acknowledge to reporters that the Russian strikes “were in areas where there probably no [ISIS] forces.”

“What we have seen is strikes against Syrian opposition,” one U.S. defense official told AFP.

The Local Coordination Committees of Syria, opposition-linked on-the-ground monitors of the conflict, estimate that 36 people were killed in Homs alone, one of three largely ISIS-free provinces Russia bombed today. RIA Novosti denied Russian air strikes on Homs and said reports of civilian causalities were "part of an information war."

The Daily Beast’s David Axe notes that Russian surface-to-air missiles and at least four Su-30 fighter jets are designed to attack other air forces, namely the U.S.’s, not lightly armed ground forces like rebels or ISIS. 

The Russian defense ministry distributed video of today's airstrikes.

As American officials scrambled to confirm the impact of the strikes, they conceded the operation was a rebuke of talks between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin about deconfliction.

“This bypasses legitimate discussion,” a senior defense official told The Daily Beast.

Indeed, just yesterday, the Pentagon said it had ordered staff and senior officials to begin such talks. U.S. officials believe fewer than 1,000 Russians have joined ISIS.

Secretary of State John Kerry told the United Nations on Wednesday that the U.S. would not oppose Russian strikes if they were “genuinely” intended to target ISIS, and he maintained the call for Assad to go. Kerry said ISIS cannot be defeated as long as Assad is in power.

American officials said they would not alter their activities in the region. And a spokesman for the military efforts against ISIS tweeted Wednesday morning that “US and coalition aircraft are currently conducting operations in Syria and Iraq.”

But despite the friction between Moscow and Washington—or perhaps, because of it—multiple American officials quietly welcomed Russian involvement in the conflict. As one U.S. officia told The Daily Beast, Putin is stepping into a “quagmire.”

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“If he wants to jump into that mess, good luck,” the official said, referencing that Russia had once before become bogged down fighting Islamic terrorism, in Afghanistan.

Sen. John McCain bashed the Obama administration hours after strikes began, saying its “decisions” and “non-decisions” have welcomed Russia into the Middle East in a way “we haven’t seen since 1973.”

— with additional reporting by Michael Weiss