There’s a new decision-maker in the U.S. war against ISIS. But he’s not a general in the Pentagon or a minister in Damascus or Baghdad.
His office is the Kremlin and his name is Vladimir Putin.
The Russian president ordered a major bombing campaign Wednesday that struck U.S. allies and aided the forces of Syria’s dictator. That undermined one cornerstone of the American war effort—support of so-called “moderate” rebels—while making a second stated goal of the Obama administration more difficult: the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In effect, Moscow’s airstrikes were a message to Washington: If you want to get rid of Assad—or build a force that can take on ISIS—you’re going to have to deal with us.
“The dynamic has changed,” one U.S. defense official said. And the new American dependence on Russia could widen a rift between the two countries over the future of the Syrian regime and how to bring a five-year-long civil war to an end.
Rebel groups in Syria that have received military equipment from the United States said they came under attack on Wednesday by Russian aircraft. U.S. officials corroborated their account to The Daily Beast. Reports indicated that the group that was hit has its base in Hama, at a critical front line in the Syrian civil war. The group is believed to have been vetted by the CIA and has posted videos of its fighters using American anti-tank weapons against Syrian regime forces.
Had the U.S. and Russian militaries communicated about the airstrikes in advance, a process known as “deconfliction” that’s meant to protect forces in the air and on the ground, those attacks could have been prevented. But the U.S. and Russia never got past the early stages of such talks.
The strikes on U.S.-backed rebels belied prior assurances from Russian officials, including Putin, that their strikes were aimed at simply supporting Assad and attacking ISIS. That pledge apparently evaporated the moment Russian planes took off for their bombing runs. On Wednesday, U.S. officials acknowledged that the strikes, so far, appear to be conducted in areas where the Islamic militant group doesn’t have a stronghold.
“Multiple strikes” hit near the city of Homs, and areas west of the Damascus-Aleppo corridor, areas largely free of ISIS, one defense official said.
“It does appear that they were in areas where there probably were not ISIL forces,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter acknowledged to reporters, using the administration’s preferred acronym for the group. Oddly, Carter also said in the same press conference that he took “the Russians at their word” about their intentions in the air campaign—to strike at ISIS, and support the Assad regime.
Privately, U.S. officials told The Daily Beast that the bombing campaign forces them to deal with Russia. Militarily, the U.S. will now have to watch for Russian strikes and their impact on the war. Diplomatically, the coalition must give Russia a seat at the table.
Some defense officials were visibly frustrated that Russia could have a say in the outcome of the war even after the United States has spent $3.87 billion, according to the latest Pentagon figures, and conducted nearly 7,100 strikes and sought in vain to train local fighters.
The picture that emerged Wednesday afternoon was of a U.S. administration that wasn’t taken by surprise when Russia attacked—American officials had been telegraphing the strikes for nearly 10 days—but that had no real response to a Russian offensive that has now encompassed both the ISIS forces that the U.S. is trying to destroy.
U.S. officials continued to argue that Russia’s entry into the war will backfire, potentially sucking the country into a quagmire. White House spokesman Josh Earnest referred Wednesday to the Soviet Union’s eight-year war in Afghanistan, also designed to bolster an ally.
“Russia will not succeed in imposing a military solution on Syria,” Earnest said.
But Russia’s strikes against the rebels seeking Assad’s ouster was the strongest reinforcement the beleaguered Syrian leader has seen in months. In Putin, Assad has found a coalition partner at a point when he appeared to be perilously close to losing key territory under his control.
Can Russian intervention save Assad? Or is it laying the groundwork for his eventual demise?
Experts said that with Moscow backing Assad—and a Washington-led coalition reluctant to confront the Russians—the Obama administration’s calls for Assad to go, at least in the short term, are meaningless.
“The obvious answer is it makes it impossible for the United States to decide now that we want to remove Assad from power,” Christopher Harmer, an analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, told The Daily Beast. “You can’t have the Russians embedded with Syrians and then attack the Assad regime. We can’t possibly risk an inadvertent conflict with Russia.”
And yet, because of the strikes, Russia now has a seat at the negotiating table and potentially veto power over whether Assad stays or goes.
“They could pick their own dictator,” one senior defense official told The Daily Beast.
Any military cooperation between Russia and the U.S. also seemed in flux. U.S. officials had said in recent days that the two countries would begin to deconflict their military strikes, but those discussions still hadn’t happened as of Wednesday afternoon, hours after the Russian attack began. Secretary of State John Kerry appeared with his Russian counterpart Wednesday even at the United Nations and said the two countries recognized the urgency of such talks.
But Wednesday’s strikes could have long-lasting implications. If Russian forces have expanded their attacks to U.S. allies in Syria, “then any prospect there might have been for U.S.-Russia cooperation is gone,” Steven Pifer, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and a top Russia adviser during the Clinton administration, told The Daily Beast.
Russia’s entry into the war was bold, dramatic—and seemingly out of a spy movie. U.S. officials in Baghdad received a phone call Wednesday morning that a Russian three-star general would be coming by with a message. At 9 a.m. local time, he informed the embassy that Russian strikes would start shortly, and the U.S. should stop its strikes and move its personnel immediately. An hour later, the bombing campaign commenced.
Officially, Russia said its eight airstrikes on Wednesday were aimed at ISIS “terrorists,” as the defense ministry put it in a public statement. There were reports from the ground that at least 36 civilians had been killed.
While Russia may have seized some immediate strategic advantage, the Putin regime could still find itself in a quagmire like the White House is predicting. U.S. officials told The Daily Beast that Russian ground forces are now vulnerable to attack. What happens if some of the hundreds of Russian troops stationed at their western Syria base are killed by a car bomb or a ground assault?, the officials asked. How much money is Russia willing to spend on behalf of Assad? And if they leave abruptly, can Assad survive such an exit?
Pifer noted that public opinion polls in Russia show a majority of its citizens are opposed to a military intervention in Syria. The Russians “have put themselves at something of a risk” by attacking now and putting their own troops in harm’s way, he said.
U.S. defense officials insisted that Russia’s intervention would have no bearing on their plans. American strikes against ISIS continued “unimpeded,” Carter said.
But Carter also had no clear rebuttal to Russia’s previous assurances that it would limit its attacks to ISIS.
The prospects for a major upheaval in the Syria conflict following Russia’s entry has worried defense officials for the past two weeks. They’ve watched as Russia sent military aircraft to their longtime base in western Syria. As recently as yesterday, defense officials said four SU-34 aircraft, also known as Fullbacks, had arrived, bringing the total number of aircraft in Syria to 32. That’s four times the number that the U.S. has based at Incirlik, Turkey, the closest staging point to targets in Syria.
What’s more, several of those jets—and many of the surface-to-air missiles imported by Russia—are built to take on foes like the United States, not ISIS.
And yet the U.S.-led effort suffered a number of setbacks. A year into the fight, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the outgoing chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the fight had become a stalemate, as strikes had not substantially damaged ISIS. A cornerstone of its policy, training of Syrian rebels to confront ISIS, struggled to find fighters and keep equipment out of jihadist hands. Last week, the Pentagon announced that a commander affiliated with U.S.-trained forces handed over six trucks and unlimited ammunition to Jabhat al Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate.