- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Officials in the U.S. and Britain said Wednesday that it was likely a bomb that took down the Russian passenger jet Saturday on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, as the Islamic State again took credit for the crash, which killed more than 200 people.

American officials said they did not have “conclusive” evidence, but multiple media outlets reported that intercepted communications led to the tentative finding that a bomb was planted on the plane by the main Sinai-based affiliate of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL.

Britain suspended all U.K. flights to the Sinai Peninsula. Prime Minister David Cameron’s office asserted in a statement that officials “have become concerned that the plane may well have been brought down by an explosive device.”

U.S. officials who spoke anonymously with The Washington Times cautioned that the investigation is continuing and that no final conclusions have been reached.

“The idea of a bomb is one of the active ideas right now,” one of the officials said. “But the idea that there’s conclusive evidence at this point is way too forward.”

An audio recording that circulated online Wednesday featured a speaker claiming the crash coincided with the anniversary of the Sinai-based Islamic State affiliate’s pledge of allegiance to the extremist group’s main operation based in Syria and Iraq.

But the speaker did not say how the militants brought down the jet, prompting speculation that media-savvy Islamic State operatives may simply be pouncing on the incident to amplify their stature on the world stage.

Still, a claim that circulated Saturday on a social media account that intelligence officials tied to the Islamic State affiliate known as “Sinai Province” said the attack was a response to Russian airstrikes against Islamic State fighters in Syria.

Moscow’s month-old military campaign in Syria remains a source of friction with Washington, where Obama administration officials have repeatedly warned that it would result in terrorist retaliation against Russia.

A top administration official said Wednesday that despite Moscow’s claims that it is aggressively targeting the Islamic State, as much as 90 percent of strikes carried out by Russian fighter jets in Syria to date have hit moderate opposition rebel groups, many with ties to the U.S. and other Western nations.

Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Anne Patterson cited the figure in congressional testimony Wednesday as evidence that the real goal of Russia’s campaign is to prop up Syrian President Bashar Assad, whom the Obama administration for the past four years has said must step down.

“Moscow has cynically tried to claim that its strikes are focused on terrorists, but so far, 85 to 90 percent of Syrian strikes have hit the moderate Syrian opposition, and they have killed civilians in the process,” Ms. Patterson said at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday morning.

“Moscow has yet to stop the Assad regime’s horrific practice of barrel bombing the Syrian people,” she said. “We know that Russia’s primary intent is to preserve the regime.”

Ms. Patterson’s comments appeared to frustrate lawmakers — particularly committee Republicans — who slammed the U.S. response to Russia’s escalation and the Obama administration’s overall strategy for defeating the Islamic State.

President Obama “still hasn’t put forward the broad, overarching strategy needed to defeat” the Islamic State in Syria or Iraq, committee Chairman Edward R. Royce said at the start of the hearing.

“Instead,” the California Republican said, “it is now Russia that is taking the decisive role in shaping Syria’s future, and not in a helpful way.”

Message to Moscow

In addition to announcing the deployment of 50 U.S. Special Forces troops to aid rebels in Syria, the White House has recently sent eight F-15C Eagles to Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base.

Analysts said the move was most likely meant to send a message to Moscow because F-15Cs are regarded as “dogfighters” capable of dominance if an air clash break outs over the Syrian battlefield.

Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland argued at the hearing that the Obama administration has responded to Russia’s military adventurism with economic sanctions — and that Moscow’s push into Syria will soon fall flat.

“None of this has been cost-free for Russia,” she said. “The price of its air campaign is estimated at $2 million to $4 million per day, this at a time when average Russians are feeling the pinch of recession brought on by economic mismanagement, low oil prices and sanctions applied for the Kremlin’s last military adventure in Ukraine.”

“As the dumb bombs that Russia is dropping inevitably hit the wrong targets — a market in Damascus, the Aleppo provincial headquarters, an ammunition dump of the Free Syrian Army — Russia is paying a very steep price to its reputation in the fight against terror,” Mrs. Nuland said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters Wednesday that he is hopeful international diplomats, including some from the U.S., will soon agree on a list of moderate Syrian opposition groups to be invited to an upcoming round of U.N.-brokered peace talks on Syria.

Moscow has complained that the international members of a U.S.-led coalition in Syria has no agreement on who should be declared legitimate opposition to Mr. Assad’s government, and which groups should be targeted like the Islamic State.

Russia’s posture might change if Saturday’s plane crash is proved to be a terrorist attack. If the Islamic State is found responsible, Egypt, which is already engaged in a bloody campaign to contain the extremist group’s spread on the Sinai Peninsula, may be tempted to draw in Russia as an ally.

The Obama administration has faced criticism for not doing enough to respond to Egyptian requests for U.S. military support. But it’s unclear how eager Moscow may be to expand its Syria-based campaign into North Africa.

Russia and Egypt have played down theories of terrorism. Cairo is particularly wary of the negative impact that such a finding would have on its vital tourist industry and the resort at Sharm el-Sheikh.

The British and Irish governments announced Wednesday that they were suspending flights to Sharm el-Sheikh International Airport. A top Egyptian official criticized the move as premature.

Russian and Egyptian officials said Wednesday that the cockpit voice recorder of the Metrojet Airbus 321-200 had sustained substantial damage in Saturday’s crash, which killed 224 people. Some information reportedly retrieved from the recorder is still under examination.

Two U.S. officials told the AP on Tuesday that U.S. satellite imagery detected heat around the jet just before it went down.

The infrared activity could mean many things, the news agency reported, including a bomb blast or an engine on the plane exploding because of a malfunction. One of the officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the information publicly said a missile striking the jetliner was ruled out, because neither a missile launch nor an engine burn was detected.

NBC News reported late Wednesday night that the director at the Sinai airport had been relieved of his duties amid questions about the level of security at the facility.

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