- Iran, Syria may join in attacks as Putin strengthens toehold
- Kremlin insists U.S.-led coalition coordinate with Syria army
President Vladimir Putin, determined to strengthen Russia’s only military outpost in the Middle East, is preparing to launch unilateral airstrikes against Islamic State from inside Syria if the U.S. rejects his proposal to join forces, two people familiar with the matter said.
Putin’s preferred course of action, though, is for America and its allies to agree to coordinate their campaign against the terrorist group with Russia, Iran and the Syrian army, which the Obama administration has so far resisted, according to a person close to the Kremlin and an adviser to the Defense Ministry in Moscow.
Russian diplomacy has shifted into overdrive as Putin seeks to avoid the collapse of the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad, a longtime ally who’s locked in a 4 1/2 year civil war against opponents including Sunni extremists fighting under the banner of Islamic State. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Moscow for talks with Putin this week, followed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Putin’s proposal, which Russia has communicated to the U.S., calls for a “parallel track” of joint military action accompanied by a political transition away from Assad, a key U.S. demand, according to a third person. The initiative will be the centerpiece of Putin’s one-day trip to New York for the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 28, which will include a meeting with President Barack Obama, both the White House and Kremlin said Thursday.
“Russia is hoping common sense will prevail and Obama takes Putin’s outstretched hand,” said Elena Suponina, a senior Middle East analyst at the Institute of Strategic Studies, which advises the Kremlin. “But Putin will act anyway if this doesn’t happen.”
Putin’s military buildup in Syria in recent weeks has alarmed U.S. officials who are still outraged by his annexation of Crimea and support for the insurgency in Ukraine, which prompted the American and European sanctions that have helped push Russia’s economy into recession.
The U.S. is willing to discuss coordinating strikes to avoid hostile incidents with Russian planes, but America and its allies haven’t received a “concrete” proposal from Moscow and won’t include Assad’s forces in the effort, an official in Washington said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“I think what you’ll see between the United States and Russia is tactical deconfliction so we can ensure safe operations for our service members,” U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, told Bloomberg. “Ultimately, as long Assad is governing, given his record and his ongoing actions, we’re just not going to be able to have the kind of success that we need in defeating ISIS,” she said, using an acronym for Islamic State.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, declined to comment on Russian military plans for Syria in a conference call with reporters on Thursday.
Russia has sent two dozen fighter jets to a new airfield near Assad’s ancestral home of Latakia and deployed hundreds of servicemen to the airbase and a nearby port, according to satellite images and media reports in Moscow. The Kremlin said last week that Russia may enter combat operations if the government in Damascus requests help.
Any armed intervention by Russia will be coordinated with Iran, Syria’s main ally, and Assad’s government, the Defense Ministry adviser said.
The Kremlin has already drafted a request for the upper house of parliament to approve the deployment of 2,000 air personnel to Syria, but has yet to formally submit it, two people familiar with the matter said. Putin is frustrated with U.S. reticence to respond to his overtures and is ready to act alone in Syria if necessary, one of them said.
Putin, who came to power fighting Islamist separatists in the Caucasus in 1999, has reason to fear the rise of jihadists in Syria. Their numbers include about 2,400 Russian-speakers, according to the Foreign Ministry in Moscow, raising the threat of attacks inside Russia.
U.S.-led coalition airstrikes are estimated to have stripped Islamic State of about 30 percent of the territory it once held. Still, the group retains control of about half of Syria and key provinces in neighboring Iraq. Fighting in Syria has traumatized the Middle East, killing at least 250,000 people and provoking hundreds of thousands of people to seek refuge in the European Union.
Leaders of the 28-nation bloc called Thursday for broad international talks to end the civil war, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel saying Assad should be included.
“We will have to talk with many actors,” Merkel said after a summit in Brussels. “Assad will be part of that, but also others like the United States and Russia as well as important regional partners like Iran or Saudi Arabia.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday the U.S. has become more “receptive” to Moscow’s position. The U.S. has tempered two planks of its Syrian policy -- that Assad must step down immediately and that it won’t negotiate with his government, according to comments made by Secretary of State John Kerry last week.
The next day, the U.S. and Russian defense chiefs held direct talks for the first time since the conflict in Ukraine started. They agreed to continue dialog to prevent clashes between their forces in Syria.
Saudi Arabia, which is backing Syrian rebels, is ready to accept the Russian proposal that Assad stay on as president during a transitional period if he is stripped of his powers, according to Anwar Eshki, a retired Saudi general who heads the Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies in Jeddah.
Russia’s involvement in Syria will help bring stability to the region and bolster the chances of defeating Islamic State, Eshki said by phone. The Syrian opposition should “put its hand in Russia’s hand,” he said.