Russian aircraft began bombing targets in Syria on Tuesday, according to U.S. and Russian officials. Reports from eyewitnesses said that the jets were striking in areas in and around Homs, in western Syria, which notably is not an ISIS stronghold.
The strikes cast doubt on Russia’s earlier pledges, one as recently as a few days ago, that it intended to support the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by attacking ISIS forces. U.S. officials had for the past several days been watching Russian surveillance flights over territory controlled by rebel groups fighting to overthrow Assad and wondered whether Russian President Vladimir Putin actually intended to target those forces.
A senior administration official on Monday had assured reporters, “We have clarity on [Russia’s] objectives. Their objectives are to go after ISIL and to support the government.”
The Russians may have led U.S. officials to believe that in the hours before the airstrikes began. A Russian three-star general 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 russian official told U.S. personnel at the embassy in Baghdad that “Russian military aircraft would begin flying anti-ISIL missions today over Syria,” a senior administration official told The Daily Beast.
As U.S. officials scrambled to figure out what targets has been hit in the strikes, they conceded the operation was a rebuke of talks between President Obama and Putin on Monday when the two men reportedly agreed to “deconflict” any airstrikes, so that each side knew where the other’s aircraft were flying and what they might be targeting.
Putin warned the United Nations General Assembly on Monday that the U.S. and its allies had made an “enormous mistake” by refusing to cooperate with the Syrian government in a fight against Islamic militants. Putin portrayed himself as a kind of regional power broker who would lead a coalition to stamp out ISIS and other extremists.
To which several U.S. officials privately laughed and wished Putin luck.
Two U.S. officials told The Daily Beast they more or less hoped that Russia did dive into what they called the “quagmire” of Syria, a conflict that the U.S. has kept at arm’s length by limiting its involvement to airstrikes directed exclusively at ISIS and al Nusra forces.
“If he wants to jump into that mess, good luck,” one official said, noting that Russia had become bogged down in Afghanistan a generation ago in a fight against Islamic radicals.
Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken told reporters that the Russians may be “making a terrible strategic mistake” by deepening their military involvement in Syria. He also warned of the “risk of running into a quagmire.”
“I think they remember Afghanistan. That knowledge or that concern may have some limiting governor on what they do themselves,” he added. “Their relationship in Syria is nothing new. It’s been their one foothold in the region for a long time. And it’s a foothold they are trying to hold on to.”
In interviews, two more U.S. officials involved in military and intelligence operations against ISIS and al Qaeda forces in the region described Putin’s speech as a propaganda “stunt” meant to make him appear as though he had marshaled a regional coalition to replace the U.S.
One official, asked how he greeted news that Russia will now be sharing intelligence about ISIS locations with the militaries of Syria, Iraq, and Iran, replied, “With pretty much a yawn.”
“This was all about Putin trying to make an impression before his [UN] speech,” a defense official said of the intelligence-sharing plan, which was announced late Sunday by the Iraqis. “I don’t think there is a lot of there there.”
The U.S. military and intelligence agencies by no means have dismissed Russia’s military buildup in Syria, which saw the arrival of at least four Sukhoi Su-34 two-seat fighters to western Syria in the past day, raising the total number of Russian military aircraft in the country to 32.
Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, the head of U.S. European Command, told the German Marshall Fund in Washington that based on the aircraft Russia has deployed to Syria, Putin’s forces have no intention of going after ISIS. Rather, they are there to support the Assad regime—possibly against American interference.
“These very sophisticated air defense capabilities are not about ISIL, they’re about something else,” Breedlove said, using the Obama administration’s preferred acronym for the group. “High on Mr. Putin’s list in Syria is preserving the [Assad] regime,” Breedlove said.
But officials told The Daily Beast that they were skeptical that Russia is somehow going to ride into the war zone and bring stability to the vast territories in Syria and Iraq that ISIS has conquered.
The officials, who asked to speak anonymously so they could candidly assess Russian military moves and the U.S. response, argued that Russia’s sharing of intelligence with the three countries—which is already being described as a new “axis”—would have little effect on the course of the conflict, and it won’t interfere with U.S. military and intelligence operations.
They added that while the U.S. wasn’t informed about the agreement before Iraq unveiled it, they were not surprised.
While much of Russia’s focus has been on Syria, Iraq is the common variable in the new partnership because the country also works on anti-ISIS operations with the U.S. But officials said there was little risk of American intelligence falling into the wrong hands via its Iraqi partners.
For starters, the U.S. has long been careful about how much intelligence it shares with the Iraqi military. That’s largely driven by the fact that the U.S. knows Iraq is working with Iran, the officials said. When U.S. forces were still in Iraq, Iranian military officers had as much access to officers in Iraqi command centers as their American counterparts did. Indeed, Iranian influence in Iraq only increased after the 2011 U.S. withdrawal.
Baghdad is also seeing only a portion of what the U.S. military and intelligence agencies are collecting about militant groups and ISIS in the region, and what they pass on has been sanitized of the sources and methods used to collect it.
“We give the Iraqis the information they need to strike [ISIS] targets,” the defense official said. “We make sure sensitive information is protected,” including information derived from highly classified surveillance programs or drones. “When we give them information, it’s only what they need to know” to attack a target, the official said.
A senior administration official briefing reporters after Putin and President Obama met at the UN on Monday evening said that the two countries had agreed to “deconflict” with each other in any airstrikes in Syria, meaning they would alert each other to their presence and try to stay out of each other’s way.
It’s unlikely the new intelligence-sharing agreement will improve Iraq’s security, which is threatened by ISIS’s expansion in western cities like Ramadi and the central city of Baiji. ISIS’s Iraqi capital remains the northern city of Mosul, which has been firmly in ISIS control for more than a year.
“Will the Russians help Iraqis do targeting in Ramadi? No. Will the Russians help Iraqis help take back Baiji? No,” the defense official explained.
U.S. officials remain less confident in the regions of Syria where even a limited intervention by Putin could change the course of the conflict. Moscow already maintains close ties to Damascus and has more than two dozen jets and a fleet of drones scouting targets in Syria now. Whatever intelligence Russia is collecting in Syria it can easily hand off to Assad. And that could dramatically improve Assad’s ability to target rebel forces who are trying to overthrow him, including those that the U.S. wants to support, said one U.S. official with knowledge of Russian military movements.
And that’s the point where U.S. officials become less cavalier about Russia’s ultimate game plan. Far from a regional strategy, they detect a move by Putin to prop up Assad and then, perhaps, target ISIS forces.
The Obama administration has all but given Putin a green light to do that. “We have clarity on their objectives,” the senior administration official told reporters. “Their objectives are to go after ISIL and to support the government.” If Russian planes limit their campaign strictly to ISIS targets, that could help to bring about the U.S. goal of destroying the group and would be seen as a net positive, the official said.
But if Russia attacks rebel forces, including those that have been backed and trained by the U.S. military and the CIA, that’s bad news for the Obama administration. The senior administration official described that as a “negative” outcome, but offered no specifics on how the U.S. would respond.
So far, Russian drones and manned flights have been limited to areas around the western Syrian province of Idlib, where ISIS has no real presence, suggesting their efforts will focus on protecting a Russian base in the neighboring province of Latakia and attacking other groups that threaten Assad outside of ISIS.
Putin and Obama remained far apart on the role of Assad in Syria’s future after their meeting, which lasted for 90 minutes and also covered Russia’s military activities in Ukraine, the official said. The Russians continue to see Assad as the best defense against extremists taking over Syria. The Americans, however, think Assad is the source of conflict in Syria and has created the conditions that allowed ISIS and al Nusra to rise in power, the official said.
In the end, the U.S. and Russia may need each other to avoid the Syrian quagmire.
“This was not a situation where either one of them was seeking to score points in a meeting,” the official said of the Obama-Putin meeting. “I think there was a shared desire to figure out a way in which we can address the situation in Syria.”
—with additional reporting by Kimberly Dozier