Russians Strike Targets in Syria, but Not ISIS Areas
WASHINGTON — Russian aircraft carried out a bombing attack against Syrian opposition fighters on Wednesday, including at least one group trained by the C.I.A., eliciting angry protests from American officials and plunging the complex sectarian war there into dangerous new territory.
Russia’s entry into the Syrian conflict, foreshadowed by a rapid military buildup in the past three weeks at an air base in Latakia, Syria, makes the possibility of a political settlement in Syria more difficult and creates a new risk of inadvertent incidents between American and Russian warplanes flying in the same area. And it adds a powerful but unpredictable combatant to a civil war that has already resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and a flood of refugees
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia justified his country’s entry into the conflict by saying that Russia was acting “preventatively, to fight and destroy militants and terrorists on the territories that they already occupied, not wait for them to come to our house.”
But American officials said the attack was not directed at the Islamic State but at other opposition groups fighting against the government of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, whom Mr. Putin has vowed to support. American officials said Russian warplanes and helicopter gunships had dropped bombs north of the central city of Homs, where there are few, if any, militants of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
“By supporting Assad and seemingly taking on everybody fighting Assad,” Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said Wednesday, Russia is “taking on the whole rest of the country that’s fighting Assad.” Some of those groups, he added, are supported by the United States and need to be part of a political resolution in Syria.
“That’s why the Russian position is doomed to fail,” Mr. Carter said.
Both Mr. Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry were critical of Russia for failing to fully inform American officials ahead of time of their mission. The notification consisted of contacting the American Embassy in Baghdad one hour before the strikes with the warning that American planes should avoid Syrian airspace. No effort was made to coordinate the airstrikes with American air operations in the region.
Russian Military Action in Syria
Over the past few weeks, Russia has stepped up its efforts to bolster the government of President Basharal-Assad of Syria. On Wednesday, Russian pilots began dropping bombs in a rebel-controlled area of the country.
Illustrating the widening complexity of the war, the United States conducted its own airstrikes in Syria on Wednesday, near Aleppo, without warning to the Russians. “No, we did not,” an American official said afterward. “It should come as a surprise to no one that we’re conducting airstrikes in Syria.”
Mr. Kerry raised Russia’s handling of the mission Wednesday morning with Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, and after a late-afternoon meeting at the United Nations, Mr. Kerry told reporters that the two sides had agreed to begin talks on avoiding unintended confrontations in Syria and clarifying which targets the Russians are picking as soon as possible, maybe even Thursday.
“It is one thing, obviously, to be targeting ISIL,” Mr. Kerry said. “We are concerned, obviously, that is not what’s happening.”
Though Russia and the United States remain far apart on the critical question of whether Mr. Assad should remain in power, Mr. Kerry said the two sides had agreed to explore “options” to ease the conflict. “We think we have some very specific steps that may be able to help lead in the right direction,” said Mr. Kerry, who did not provide any details. “That needs to be properly explored.”
At least one and possibly more Syrian opposition groups that have been secretly armed and trained by the C.I.A. were among the rebel groups targeted by the Russian airstrikes, a senior United States official said. The official would not identify which group or groups were attacked or where they were located. Nor would he assess the damages or casualties suffered by the Syrian fighters other than to say, “It was not minor.” American officials said they were still sorting through the battle damage reports coming in from the field.