- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Russia followed its launch of airstrikes in Syria with a call Wednesday for the world to unite and form a coalition in the fight against terrorist groups, raising concerns that the Obama administration was caught flatfooted and prompting calls for President Obama to “wake up” and reassert American leadership in the Middle East.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said the airstrikes, which came within one hour’s notice to U.S. diplomats in Iraq, were aimed at Islamic State militants who have taken over large parts of Syria and Iraq. Moscow estimates that 2,400 Russian citizens have joined the extremists.

“If [the militants] succeed in Syria, they will return to their home country, and they will come to Russia too,” Mr. Putin said in a televised speech.

U.S. officials and others cast doubt on that claim, saying the Russians appeared to be attacking opposition groups fighting government forces in western parts of Syria where the extremists aren’t operating.

Syrian state television quoted an unidentified military official as saying that Russian warplanes targeted Islamic State positions in central Syria, including the areas of Rastan and Talbiseh and areas near the town of Salamiyeh in Hama province.

Genevieve Casagrande of the Institute for the Study of War said the airstrike on Talbisah “did not hit ISIS militants and rather resulted in a large number of civilian casualties.”

ISIS, ISIL and Daesh are other names for the Islamic State.

At the United Nations, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told foreign ministers of world powers that his country was circulating a draft resolution to form a coalition of nations to fight terrorist groups. Russia spoke a day after Mr. Obama made his own pitch on countering the threat of the Islamic State and other groups to a gathering of world leaders at the United Nations.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry said the Obama administration is “prepared to welcome” the Russian military’s bombardment of al Qaeda and Islamic State targets in Syria but will continue to push for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The State Department lists 62 countries as part of the U.S. coalition fighting the Islamic State.

“We must not and will not be confused in our fight against [the Islamic State] with support for Assad,” Mr. Kerry told the U.N. Security Council in New York.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told the Security Council that his country strongly endorses Russia’s moves and called French and other airstrikes in Syria that aren’t coordinated with his government a “blatant contravention” of international law.

Russia’s airstrikes raised concerns at the Pentagon about a lack of coordination with the U.S. military in the region and renewed criticism in Congress that Mr. Obama is ceding U.S. influence in the Middle East to Russia.

The Russians gave the U.S. only an hour’s notification that the airstrikes were about to occur through a message conveyed to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, said State Department spokesman John Kirby.

“A Russian official in Baghdad this morning informed U.S. Embassy personnel that Russian military aircraft would begin flying anti-ISIL missions today over Syria,” Mr. Kirby said. “He further requested that U.S. aircraft avoid Syrian airspace during these missions.”

He added, “The U.S.-led coalition will continue to fly missions over Iraq and Syria as planned and in support of our international mission to degrade and destroy ISIL.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, urged Mr. Obama to “wake up” and reassert American leadership in the region.

“This is the inevitable consequence of hollow words, red lines crossed, tarnished moral influence, leading from behind and a total lack of American leadership,” Mr. McCain said on the Senate floor. “Into the wreckage of this administration’s Middle East policy has now stepped Vladimir Putin.”

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican who is poised to become speaker, said the administration has been “caught flatfooted in Syria, failing to recognize and stop Russia’s military buildup.”

Russia’s intervention is a direct challenge to President Obama’s stated position that Assad must go,” Mr. McCarthy said. “Russia’s intentions are far more nefarious than simply propping up Assad. Russia can and will begin to use its buildup in Syria to assert its influence in the Middle East and make it more difficult for U.S. forces to operate.”

The White House said Russia is acting out of weakness because the Assad regime is crumbling after years of support from Moscow.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the buildup of Russian military support for Syria is “an indication of how concerned they are about losing influence in the one client state they have in the Middle East.”

But even the administration acknowledges its $500 million effort to train and equip an opposition Syrian army to fight the Islamic State has been a failure, and a retired U.S. Air Force official said the Russian military might have more success against the militants than the U.S.-led coalition has achieved.

“The U.S. air campaign has been rather anemic thus far, much because of reportedly strict rules of engagement that exceed what the law of armed conflict might require,” said Duke University law professor Charles Dunlap Jr., a former deputy judge advocate general of the Air Force. “I doubt the Russians will be constrained in the same way, though I don’t expect them to be indifferent to international law or engage, for example, in the barrel bombing tactics the Assad military is alleged to have conducted against civilians. Militarily, it is quite possible that the Russians could enjoy more success in taking out ISIS targets than the U.S. has thus far.”

Mr. Dunlap said the Russian action presents many complications for the U.S., “especially where Russian forces are acting not just against ISIS, but also rebel forces trying to unseat Assad.”

“For safety of flight reasons the U.S. and Russia need, at a minimum, some process for avoiding airspace conflicts, but any seeming ‘cooperation’ with Russia, however nominal, is politically problematic for the U.S. and its coalition partners,” he said.

White House officials said the Pentagon was contacting Russian military officials to communicate their plans in Syria, but the first of the meetings had not taken place by late Wednesday.

American forces, which are carrying out their own bombing runs against al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Syria, are ready to “deconflict” with Russian forces and communicate to avoid accidental encounters on the battlefield, Mr. Kerry said. This could work, he said, toward “increasing the military pressure on ISIL.”

Mr. Putin said his goal is to help the Syrian military fight the Islamic State, but Moscow has long colluded with Iran as a top backer of the Assad regime. The Obama administration has spent much of the past four years calling for the Syrian president’s ouster on grounds that he fueled the rise of extremists by authorizing the nation’s military to conduct genocide-style attacks on civilians.

A big question at the U.N. General Assembly in New York this week has centered on the extent to which Mr. Putin is outmaneuvering Mr. Obama — as well as others in a broad U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State and the Assad regime — into abandoning their long-held demand that the Syrian president step down.

Russian lawmakers voted unanimously Wednesday to allow Mr. Putin to order the airstrikes in Syria, where Russia has deployed fighter jets and other weapons in recent weeks. The Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, discussed Mr. Putin’s request for the authorization behind closed doors, cutting off its live Web broadcast to hold a debate notable for its quickness.

Mr. Putin had to request parliamentary approval for any use of Russian troops abroad, according to the Constitution. The last time he did so was before Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014.

Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat, said it was appalling that the Russian legislative body approved such action while Congress still hasn’t voted on a new authorization of military force for Mr. Obama’s military campaign in Iraq and Syria.

“While President Putin’s actual intent under a rubber stamp of support from Russia’s Federation Council is questionable, the fact that he sought and received authorization from his legislature to use military force in Syria — a process that has yet to occur in the U.S. Congress with respect to our mission against ISIL — is also extremely disconcerting,” Mr. Kaine said. “The fact that we have given a leader as morally compromised as Putin any opening at all to criticize the United States should galvanize my congressional colleagues to take immediate action on an authorization for the use of military force against ISIL.”

The Russian leader insisted that Moscow would not send ground troops to Syria and that its role in Syrian army operations would be limited.

“We certainly are not going to plunge head-on into this conflict,” he said. “First, we will be supporting the Syrian army purely in its legitimate fight with terrorist groups. Second, this will be air support without any participation in the ground operations.”

Mr. Putin also said he expects Mr. Assad, Russia’s longtime ally, to sit down and talk with the Syrian opposition about a political settlement, but added that he was referring to a “healthy” opposition group.

In Baghdad, Saad al-Hadithi, a spokesman for the Iraqi prime minister, said his government was in talks with Russia “in the hope that shared intelligence will further our abilities to defeat the terrorists within our borders.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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