Russia’s airstrikes sound alarm bells in the US
Russian President Vladimir Putin is indeed trying to remake the Middle East by boldly exposing the United States and its Allies’ stand on terrorism. Ever since Russia began its airstrikes on the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) terrorist group in Syria early this month, Washington has condemned the action, claiming that Kremlin is targeting the “wrong” terrorists. For Russia, the definition of a terrorist is simple. “If it looks like a terrorist, if it acts like a terrorist, if it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist, it is a terrorist,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, during a UN briefing.
Escalating its role in Syria, the Russian military has launched medium range cruise missiles nearly 1500 kilometres away from the Caspian Sea. Suffice to say, Russia has rekindled memories of its military might in the Cold War-era. The recent airstrikes came amid reports of an expanding ground offence by pro-government forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Syria is coordinating these attacks with Russia and Iran. Russia used 26 sea-based cruise missiles. These precision strikes have claimed the lives of over 600 Islamic State militants, besides destroying 40 percent of its infrastructure.
Iran has played an integral role in bringing Russia into the mix. One of Tehran’s most powerful general held a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin for three hours to push for an intervention. General Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s elite Quds Force went to Moscow in August with the message that Russian airstrikes against the Islamic State were imperative, as stated by the two senior officials, who were later briefed about the meeting.
Encouraged by Russian airstrikes, pro-government ground forces have launched military strikes against the IS. In the Northern province of Aleppo, rebels battled to reverse an advance by the IS group that brought the Jihadist to within a few kilometres of Syria’s second city.
In Moscow, Russia’s Defence Ministry said that its forces had hit 55 IS targets in the past 24 hours. The strikes in Damascus, Aleppo, Hama, Ragga, and Idlib provinces destroyed 29 terrorist training camps, 23 defensive positions, two command centres, and an ammunition depot.
Alarmed by the speed and scale of Russia’s intervention in Syria, Western military officials said last week that they were stepping up military exercises and deploying a small number of logistic personnel in Eastern and Central Europe. Britain announced that it would send soldiers to the Baltic countries after the show of force by the Russian President. Germany condemned Russia’s operations in Syria in unusually pointed terms. NATO expressed alarm about Russia’s incursions into Turkish airspace, and widening the field of conflict to include the firing of cruise missiles from warships in the Caspian Sea. NATO announced that it was stepping up training exercises and establishing two small military headquarters in Hungary and Slovakia, supplementing six others – in the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and in Bulgaria, Poland, and Romania.
Shocked at the rapid change in the ground realities of Syria, Saudi Arabia is now trying to mend its relations with Russia. Saudi Arabia’s Defence Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Salman, who is also the son of the Saudi King, met President Putin in Moscow recently. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said both countries were willing to cooperate in Syria and wanted to prevent the formation of a “terrorist Caliphate”. Russia’s intervention in Syria has infuriated Assad’s regional foes, including Saudi Arabia, who say Russian airstrikes have also been hitting rebel groups opposed to Assad, and not just the IS fighters that Moscow says it is targeting.
Meanwhile, Toyota Motor Company has spoken with US officials about the prominent use of its vehicles by militants in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan. Toyota pick-ups are conspicuous in extremist propaganda videos and are often seen carrying IS groups fighting the war, some with large calibre weapons affixed to truck beds. The company, however, says it prohibits sales to anyone who might modify them for paramilitary or terrorist activities. Another question being raised is who is buying oil from the oil fields captured by the IS terrorists. Who is funding them through these purchases?
Russia is remaking the Middle East by bringing change to the ground realities of the region. The recent military strikes and build up against targets inside Syria mark Russia’s return as a major strategic actor for the first time since the Yom Kippur War of 1973 that pitted Arab nations against Israel. It has boxed in US President Obama compelling him to rethink America’s strategy in the Middle-East.
Meanwhile in Syria, Russian intervention is now forcing the IS to react. And react they did. Insurgents fired two mortar shells at the Russian Embassy in the Syrian Capital last week during a pro-Russian rally. Insurgents have vowed to fight Russian forces after Moscow began launching air strikes in Syria.
The civil war has killed more than 2,50,000 people and displaced half of Syrian’s population. A 39-year-old civil servant in Damascus said, “Thanks, Russia, President Putin’s stances were positive for Syria”.
(Anil Narendra is the Chief Editor of Daily Pratap, Daily Vir Arjun and Sandhya Vir Arjun. Views expressed are personal)