- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Russian President Vladimir Putin, ignoring Washington, escalated his war in Syria against Islamist armies Wednesday by launching a sea bombardment along with air and land attacks.

NATO allies said the Russians are overwhelmingly targeting pro-Western rebels, rejecting Moscow’s public relations line that it is going after a common enemy: the Islamic State’s terrorist army.

The West increasingly views Mr. Putin’s military adventure as an effort to rebuild the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad by eliminating opposition groups funded and organized by the United States. They see little evidence that he is hitting facilities run by the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, ISIS and Daesh.

“This is part of Russia’s softening of the anti-Assad rebels and the beginning of a Russian ground campaign to stabilize a slice of Syria and then provide Moscow a platform to create a new proxy in Damascus,” said Robert Maginnis, a retired Army officer.

“I doubt once Putin saves Assad’s hide that he will keep the butcher around very long,” Mr. Maginnis said. “Likely, Putin will collaborate with the Iranian mullahs to resurrect a new rogue more appealing than Assad to the neighborhood. That’s inevitable.”

Iran and its client, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, have fighters inside Syria bolstering the Assad dictatorship.

In Moscow, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told Mr. Putin in televised remarks that his forces opened a front with four ships in the Caspian Sea after firing 26 missiles at 11 targets inside Syria.

Russian fighter jets continued airstrikes, now numbering more than 100, for an eighth straight day in what appears to be coordinated operations with government ground troops and artillery fire. Russia has established three bases in Syria, inserted army forces to protect them, and erected air defense missiles and radars to shield its aircraft.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter issued a strong condemnation of Russia’s actions in Syria and said there would be no strategic cooperation with the U.S.

“I have said before that we believe Russia has the wrong strategy,” said Mr. Carter, in Rome for a scheduled NATO conference. “They continue to hit targets that are not ISIL. We believe this is a fundamental mistake. Despite what the Russians say, we have not agreed to cooperate with Russia so long as they continue to pursue mistaken strategy and hit these targets.”

He said the U.S. is willing to discuss technical issues of safety to ensure neither side mistakenly targets the other as Russian and coalition aircraft from at least nine countries fly over Syria at any given moment.

Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed Mr. Carter’s complaints by saying, “Don’t listen to the Pentagon about the Russian strikes.” The truth, he said, resides on the Russian Defense Ministry website.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is not buying Moscow’s line.

“These air raids are not against ISIS. There were 57 air raids by Russian air forces. Fifty-five of them were against moderate opposition and only two were against Daesh, according to military information we received,” Mr. Davutoglu said, according to the Anadolu news agency.

A Russian fighter appeared to deliberately breach Turkish airspace this week. Mr. Putin has dispatched long-range nuclear bombers close to the airspace of other NATO members, including the U.S.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry also has not hidden his irritation with Moscow. He says it must decide whether its aim is to keep Mr. Assad, to whom he referred as Russia’s “client,” in office or fight the Islamic State while striving for a political solution.

“If Russia’s intent is to focus more on shoring up Assad and his regime rather than legitimately narrowing the focus to ISIL and its affiliates, that will make it impossible to find the political solution that they say they want, because it will inevitably wind up attracting more jihadis and creating more destruction, more refugees, more division within Syria itself,” Mr. Kerry said Tuesday.

The secretary of state’s words appeared to fall on deaf ears in Moscow, where Mr. Putin celebrated his 63rd birthday Wednesday by scoring seven goals in a hockey match featuring NHL stars, government officials and tycoons. Mr. Putin received his team’s trophy for its victory; earlier he had been briefed about Russia’s bombardments in Syria.

The Associated Press in Damascus said the Russian air bombardment has centered on central and northwestern Syria, where pro-Western rebels had been making inroads.

The AP said Tajammu Alezzah, leader of one U.S.-backed rebel group, texted reporters that Syria, along with Russian and Iranian troops, had begun a ground offensive against his fighters.

The AP said the government is using a base in the town of Morek, on a highway linking Damascus with Aleppo, to amass for attacks.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has operatives inside Syria, said Russian jets on Wednesday raided the village of al-Sayad and the town of al-Latamina, where government troops are fighting rebels. The group said the Russians also hit al Qaritin city, which is controlled by the Islamic State, in western Syria.

President Obama said last year that he did not see Syria as “some Cold War chess game” and does not see the U.S. as competing with Russia.

Mr. Obama has received wide criticism in the world press, including the BBC and CNN, for appearing detached from events in the Middle East. The president and Mr. Putin met privately at the United Nations last month but appeared to agree to disagree on Syria.

Said Michael Rubin, a Middle East scholar at the American Enterprise Institute: “Putin is the schoolyard bully. He keeps pushing and pushing and takes pleasure in the fact that no one will push back. He’s going from kicking around the smallest kids on the block to going after NATO members. As for Obama, he’s unaware that screaming uncle won’t bring peace. It’s a celebrity death match between Machiavelli [Putin] and a neighborhood organizer [Obama].”

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