WASHINGTON, Oct. 7, 2015 – Russian missile corvettes in the Caspian Sea fired 26 cruise missiles at 11 targets in Syria on Wednesday. Senior Russian officials said that all targets were in territory held by the Islamic State.
Previous Russian strikes involved warplanes dropping either low-accuracy guided munitions or inaccurate “dumb” bombs. This was the first Russian use of cruise missiles, and in particular of their new Kalibr-NK cruise missiles outside of training. After traveling over 900 miles, the missiles all hit within nine feet of their targets in Raqqa, Idlib and Aleppo provinces.
Russian President Vladimir Putin praised both the precision of the missiles and the performance of the crews who fired them.
The U.S. Navy typically uses Tomahawk cruise missiles against high-value targets when surprise is required. The Russian missiles don’t seem to have been launched against that type of target, suggesting that the Russians intended mainly to demonstrate their technological prowess and to show that Russia is capable of performing the same type of operations that the U.S. has carried out in the region for over 25 years.
The attacks also serve a domestic function. Images of Russian planes and missiles being launched against Syria are replacing coverage of Ukraine on Russian TV. Russia’s economic woes continue unabated, but film of Russian warships launching cruise missiles against distant targets is sure to boost nationalists’ spirits.
On Oct. 3, Russian television channel Rossiya-24’s weather presenter described weather conditions in Syria as “very favorable” for a bombing campaign. “October in Syria is generally a propitious time for flights … Rain falls only once every 10 days and the most intensive rain, up to 18 millimeters, is usually observed in the north, where the operation by Russia’s air force is underway. But this cannot seriously affect the bombings.”
With defense ministry footage of bombs striking the ground playing behind her, she added that cloud cover was expected to be between four and 10 kilometers above the ground, “optimal altitude for bombings.”
Russian officials have denied that the airstrikes over the last week have targeted mainly non-IS rebel forces. Critics claim that Russian strikes have been mainly against targets in western Syria; the main IS strongholds are in the northern and eastern parts of the country. Supposed Russian strikes in the northwest would have targeted al-Nusra, which is a bitter rival of the Islamic State.
American officials have been cold to the Russian offensive this week. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter says that American forces will not co-operate with Russia. “We believe Russia has the wrong strategy. They continue to hit targets that are not IS. We believe this is a fundamental mistake.”
Russian defense officials were more optimistic about U.S.-Russian cooperation. Regarding the sharing of targeting information, Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov told Tass, “We just need to specify some technical details that will be discussed today by representatives of the Russian Defense Ministry and the Pentagon at the expert level.”
The discordant strategies of the U.S. and Russia in Syria raise the threat of accidental conflict between American and Russian forces. American pilots are currently instructed to change course if they come within 20 nautical miles of a Russian plane, and Pentagon officials say that they’ve already had to carry out at least one “safe separation” maneuver.
The real risk is that Syria will be turned into Lebanon, a country that was torn apart by several factions fighting each other and the central government with the help of outside powers. In fact, it appears that Syria is almost there.
The Syrian civil war is in its fifth year. It started in 2011, in the wake of the “Arab Spring” that brought down regimes in Egypt and Tunisia. Unlike the governments in those countries, Syria’s President Assad cracked down violently on peaceful protests, assisting their transformation into armed rebellion.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq was an early outside entrant into the conflict, but it soon split into the competing Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIS) and al-Nusra. The Islamic State now holds nearly half the territory in Syria.
Russia and Iran have supported the Assad government. Until this year, their support was mainly financial. Lebanon’s Hezbollah has provided manpower, fighting alongside Assad’s forces.
The U.S. has supported a coalition of “moderate” rebels, the Syrian National Coalition. Kurdish forces have fought IS along the Turkish border. Turkey has been reluctant to fight against IS for fear of seeming to support the Syrian Kurds, who are supported by Turkish Kurds whose organizations are illegal in Turkey. It has nevertheless come out in strong support of anti-Assad forces.
Saudi Arabia and Jordan support the anti-Assad forces and have joined the U.S. in launching airstrikes against the Islamic State.
The war has not just fractured Syria; it has killed up to 300,000 people, displaced 7.6 million within Syria, and sent another 4 million abroad as refugees. The tide of immigrants into Europe isn’t just Syrians, but the situation there will grow much worse if the war in Syria continues.
The competing interests of Russia, the U.S., Iran, Saudi Arabia and others almost guarantee that the war in Syria will continue. The Kurds, al-Nusra, Islamic State, coalition rebels, Hezbollah, and the Assad regime have carved the country into a twisted mosaic that will be reintegrated only with a great deal more blood and misery.
The long-term forecast is that the weather in Syria will remain “optimal” for continued air and missile strikes.