Russia Asserts Its Military Might in Syria
MOSCOW — Russia flexed its muscles again over Syria on Friday, for the first time launching cruise missiles at targets from warships in the Mediterranean Sea days after beginning bombing runs from a base in Iran.
Taken together, the new military moves appeared to be a demonstration that Russia has the ability to strike from virtually all directions in a region where it has been reasserting its power — from Iran, from warships in the Caspian Sea, from its base in the Syrian coastal province of Latakia and now from the Mediterranean.
The United States also asserted its military might in a new way, scrambling its aircraft to protect its forces, and those it is supporting, from Syrian government airstrikes. The Pentagon issued a blunt warning to the Syrian government after its warplanes struck a Kurdish-controlled region where American military personnel were on the ground.
“The Syrian regime would be well advised not to interfere with coalition forces or our partners,” said Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.
Talks appear to have stalled between Russia and the United States on a proposal to carry out joint operations in Syria against militant groups both countries consider terrorist. Russian and Syrian government airstrikes have intensified lately, with no progress on the horizon for a political solution to end the war.
While both Russia and the United States say they share the goal of defeating the Islamic State group in Syria, they are waging parallel but separate wars against the militant group while simultaneously backing opposite sides in the conflict between Russia’s ally, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, and his other opponents, including rebels backed by the United States.
Russian air power, which entered the war last fall, has helped Mr. Assad hold on to power and make advances against rebels.
The war is also providing President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia a public proving ground — and a showcase to his adversaries — for new, sophisticated weaponry.
The Russian cruise missiles are not a game-changer in the war. But the long-range bombers flying from Iran, and the heavier payloads they can carry, pose a new threat to insurgents and civilians.
The Russian Ministry of Defense said Friday that two ships from the country’s Black Sea Fleet, the Zelyony Dol and the Serpukhov, fired three missiles from positions off the coast of Syria in the eastern Mediterranean.
The Kalibr missiles are a new addition to Russia’s arsenal, similar to American Tomahawk cruise missiles. And like Tomahawks, they are capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
But taken in the context of the dozens of strikes that Russia carries out daily, the three missile attacks were hardly significant. The ministry said the missiles hit a garrison, a command center and a weapons depot belonging to the Levant Conquest Front, until recently called the Nusra Front and officially affiliated with Al Qaeda.
Far more important militarily is the decision to fly the long-range bombers from Iran rather than from Moscow as it had before; if it continues, this could result in a more devastating air war over a long period of time.
The United States, too, engaged in saber-rattling on Friday.
The Pentagon said it had scrambled aircraft over northeastern Syria in a warning to the government after Syrian warplanes hit areas controlled by Kurdish fighters that are working with the American military to fight the Islamic State. The government and the Kurdish-led forces have had only occasional skirmishes, maintaining a kind of de facto truce, and the government airstrikes came amid their most serious clashes yet.
Scrambling the jets was the most robust American response yet to Syrian government airstrikes, although Syrian and Russian attacks have repeatedly hit predominantly Arab rebel groups backed by the United States, as well as hospitals, schools and civilian areas. The American move prompted grumbling from opponents of Mr. Assad, who said that the United States appeared ready to offer stronger protection to its Kurdish-led allies than to other rebel groups or civilians.
Two SU-24 bombers struck Thursday near the city of Hasakah in north-central Syria, said Captain Davis, the Pentagon spokesman. No members of the American military were harmed in the strikes, he said.
The episode prompted the United States to contact the Russian military, which indicated that its planes had not participated in the strikes, Captain Davis said. American officials urged the Russians to contact the Syrian government with a blunt message: “United States aircraft would defend troops on the ground if threatened,” Captain Davis said.
He said American forces on the ground in Syria also tried to contact the Syrian pilots directly using a standard ground-to-air frequency. “They did not answer,” he said.
Captain Davis declined to specify how many Americans were on the ground near where the Syrian strikes occurred, saying only that it was “a small number.” Over all, the United States has said there are about 300 members of the Special Forces operating in Syria to train, advise and assist their partners fighting on the ground.
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