Russian Airstrikes Complicate Syrian Conflict


On September 28th, Russian president Vladimir Putin told the United Nations General Assembly that “it is an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces, who are valiantly fighting terrorism face to face,” according to The Washington Post. Two days later, Russia began direct intervention in the Syrian civil war. Russia has long supported the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in its fight against rebel forces, but Russia’s air campaign in Syria takes that commitment to a new level and adds complexity to the already chaotic situation in the region.

Russia asserts that it is carrying out airstrikes against terrorist groups in order to help President Assad combat Islamic State. However, most of the airstrikes have been directed not against Islamic State, but against U.S.-backed rebel groups. With help from Russian warplanes, Assad’s forces have retaken a number of towns that were previously under rebel control. Rebel forces report that the airstrikes have killed dozens of civilians. Russia is conducting as many strikes against the rebels in one day as the United States has been conducting against Islamic State in a month.

The United States has condemned the Russian intervention, but the current priority of the American military is to prevent an inadvertent conflict with Russia in Syrian airspace. With the United States carrying out airstrikes against Islamic State in the same region, the situation in the air over Syria is precarious. On Friday, the militaries of the United States and Russia announced that they had come to a basic technical agreement to avoid an unintended conflict. However, increased tensions are inevitable. Turkey recently shot down a drone that crossed into its airspace from Syria. Analysts say the drone is Russian, although Russia denies this claim. Russia’s show of power has brought a new level of tension to Syria that could draw even more countries into the conflict, turning it into a proxy war.

The intervention in Syria is Russia’s first military campaign outside of former Soviet borders since the fall of the Soviet Union, according to The New York Times. The airstrikes are alarming not only because they target U.S.-backed troops, but also because they add to a worrying pattern of Russia asserting its military might. Russia’s annexation of Crimea last year and its military involvement in Eastern Ukraine showed that Putin is not afraid to challenge the West. Russia’s intervention in Syria is taking that truth even further.