Russia Continues Fighting in Syria 09/30 06:33
WASHINGTON (AP) -- A year after Russia waded into the war in Syria, aiming
to flex its national security muscles and prop up beleaguered Syrian President
Bashar Assad, Moscow appears no closer to one of its military goals: getting
the U.S. to coordinate combat operations in the civil war. And prospects of a
diplomatic resolution seem dim.
The yearlong offensive of airstrikes and ground combat in Syria, however,
has showcased some of Moscow's newer military capabilities and underscored
President Vladimir Putin's willingness to go to war to protect an ally ---
particularly one that hosts a critical Russian base on the Mediterranean Sea.
More broadly, it put Russia at the center of the conflict, providing an opening
for diplomatic cooperation between the U.S. and Russia to end the civil war.
But it also further complicated the U.S.-led campaign to wipe out Islamic State
militants who found a haven amid the chaos.
The diplomacy was collapsing this week with the U.S. threatening to end all
Syria-related cooperation unless the bombardment of Aleppo stopped. Russia
responded that the U.S. was encouraging extremist attacks on Russian assets.
Russia has demanded that the U.S separate the anti-Assad rebels it has
supported from al-Qaida-linked militant groups, who often intermingle. But the
U.S. has been unable to do so, and instead has said it remains focused on
defeating the Islamic State group.
The bickering and diplomatic stalemates have threatened to compound other
U.S.-Russian issues, such as economic sanctions or the annexation of Crimea.
As members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday demanded to
know the Obama administration's "Plan B" for Syria, Deputy Secretary of State
Antony Blinken laid out the administration's view.
"The leverage (the U.S. has) is the consequences for Russia of being stuck
in a quagmire that is going to have a number of profoundly negative effects,"
Blinken said, adding that Russia will be seen throughout the world as complicit
with Assad as well as with Hezbollah and Iran "in the slaughter of Sunni
Muslims," Syria's largest religious group.
Under blistering criticism from senators, Blinken said the administration
was "actively considering other options" for how to end the bloodshed. Syria's
civil war has cost 500,000 lives and created the worst refugee crisis since
World War II.
A year ago, worried about its naval base on Syria's coast and determined to
shore up Assad, Moscow began to build up its military in Syria, sending in
aircraft, fighter jets and troops.
Against the backdrop of an early failed U.S. program to train moderate
Syrian forces, Putin began launching airstrikes in Syria on Sept. 30, 2015.
Moscow insisted it was targeting Islamic State extremists. But in the ensuing
months, Russian airstrikes pounded rebel strongholds and civilians, largely in
areas where there is no Islamic State presence. According to military officials
and humanitarian groups on the ground, the Russians have bombed hospitals,
schools and, recently, a U.S. aid convoy, killing throngs of innocent civilians
either deliberately or inadvertently, because of their use of powerful but
imprecise "dumb" bombs.
Concerned about safety in the increasingly crowded skies over Syria, the
U.S. set up a communications link with Russia to de-conflict the airspace and
reduce the risk of collisions. That minor cooperation will continue even as
other cooperation is ruled out.
According to U.S. officials familiar with the discussions, the Russians made
it clear to the Pentagon from the start that a key long-term goal was joint
military coordination with the U.S. --- a move military officials and others
Russian leaders, said one senior U.S. official, had a singular focus during
the talks with defense officials and that was to be able to project themselves
as military allies with the United States. The official was not authorized to
discuss the issue publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.
"Putin had several objectives entering into Syria. One was to demonstrate
Russia is a global power," said Evelyn Farkas, former U.S. deputy assistant
defense secretary and now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington.
But last week the negotiations to set up a joint military implementation
center collapsed, and it became clear that Russia was not going to make good on
its publicly stated effort to control Assad or force the government to abide by
"I think this has proven to be tougher than the Russians expected," said
Derek Chollet, a former assistant defense secretary for international affairs
and now a senior adviser at the German Marshall Fund. "I see no evidence that
Russia's intervention in Syria is increasing its diplomatic or political
influence" around the world.
"In fact, if anything, what I've heard from Europeans is that the
intervention in Syria last year was so shocking in its brutality that it
quashed any sort of momentum there was to lift sanction against Russia in
Ukraine," he said.
Meanwhile, the fighting, according to experts, has revealed an array of
technological and strategic weaknesses within Russia's military and its command
structure, including its lack of precision targeting, a cumbersome
decision-making process and, at times, limited real-time awareness about what
is going on at the battlefield.
The U.S.-led coaltion has also had its share of mishaps on the battlefield,
including an airstrike that mistakenly hit dozens of Syrian soldiers just as
the cease-fire began earlier this month --- plunging the talks into turmoil.
Russian's military campaign in Syria, however, did allow Moscow to showcase
in combat for the first time its long-range cruise missiles, launched from the
air and from the sea.
Farkas and others say that in the wake of the collapse of the cease-fire and
the resumption of all-out war, time is not on Russia's side.
"The Russians need to be thinking more carefully, that the Pottery Barn
rules apply," said Farkas, referring to the often-quoted "you break it, you
bought it" slogan. "Russia now has lead responsibility for rebuilding Syria."