Russian warships fired a volley of cruise missiles into Syria from the Caspian Sea on Wednesday, as Russian-backed Syrian government troops launched a ground offensive to crush rebel forces opposing the regime of President Bashar Assad.
The missile strikes mark a major escalation of Russia's recent involvement in Syria's long civil war and a growing threat to a faltering U.S. policy in Syria.
Russia said four warships carried out 26 missile strikes from the Caspian Sea, destroying 11 targets more than 900 miles away. The missiles crossed Iranian and Iraqi airspace to reach their targets.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is backing long-time ally Assad in his four-year-old civil war against more moderate opposition groups backed by the United States. Moscow is also aiding the Syrian government's fight against Islamic State extremists. That goal runs counter to the Obama administration's objectives. It is leading a coalition campaign of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria to defeat the Islamic State, and is calling for Assad's removal.
"We're really on our back foot and have been since the Russians started their buildup in Syria," said Jeff White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency official now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "We’ve lost the initiative."
The Pentagon has accused Russia of bolstering Assad by attacking moderate opposition groups the U.S. supports. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on Wednesday called the Russian strategy "tragically flawed."
Russian officials countered Wednesday that their goal is to go after all terrorist groups. Russia seeks “a terror-free Syria and a terror-free region,” Aydar Aganin, a Middle East analyst at the Russian embassy in Washington, said in an interview.
Rejecting U.S. claims that the airstrikes are not aimed at Islamic State militants, Aganin said, "We strike terrorists.”
In defending Assad, however, Moscow does not appear to be distinguishing between the extremist and more moderate rebel groups, which is heightening tensions with Washington at a time when it is struggling to find a winning strategy for ending Syria's civil war and halting a flood of refugees swarming into the Middle East and Europe.
Even before the Russian buildup, the Pentagon acknowledged its plan to field a force of moderate rebels to fight the Islamic State had run into problems, and it had suspended most of the program after training just a few fighters.
One U.S. military-trained group was attacked by al-Qaeda-linked forces shortly after arriving in Syria, and another turned over equipment and ammunition to the same terrorist organization. Only a handful of Pentagon-trained opposition forces remain in Syria.
"I’m the first one to acknowledge it has not worked the way it was supposed to," President Obama said recently.
The White House and military officials are examining other ways to support moderate opposition forces to counter the Islamic State. But now those groups may be vulnerable to Russian attacks.
The U.S.-led coalition has dropped thousands of bombs on Islamic State targets but has kept ground forces out of the country. Russia has deployed helicopter gunships, tanks and rocket launchers to Syria, along with troops to guard Russian bases. Putin said he would not send ground combat troops to Syria.
The Russian support appears to have energized Assad's forces, who had suffered a number of defeats. Now they are engaged in an offensive centered around Hama, a city in north-central Syria. Russian airstrikes appeared to be supporting the offensive.
President Obama has accused Putin of intervening in Syria "because his client, Mr. Assad, was crumbling." Obama wants Assad out, citing atrocities against his own people.
"Now we have to contemplate going to war with Russia if we want to get rid of Assad," said Christopher Chivvis, an analyst at RAND Corp.
Russian analyst Aganin said Moscow's goal is not to protect Assad but to fight the spread of terrorism. He noted that the Syrian battlefields are 300 miles from Russia’s Caucasus region. He said Russia estimates that 2,000 fighters from former Soviet republics have joined the radical group.
The militants “see parts of Russia as a target for this caliphate they are building,” said Yury Melnik, the Russian embassy press secretary. “If they succeed in standing their ground in Syria and Iraq, they may bring their activities closer and closer to Russia, which is a direct threat.”
Aganin said Russia wants whoever is fighting the Islamic State to join forces because eliminating the radical group would improve prospects for a political solution in Syria.
“It’s in the mutual interest of the Syrian army and the moderate opposition” to fight the Islamic State, “and we are ready to support both if we have a point of contact,” Melnik said.
The United States has said it is willing to hold "technical" talks with Russia to avoid a mishap between coalition and Russian pilots. However, the White House has said it would not coordinate more broadly with the Russians unless they agreed to a political transition that would remove Assad from power.
Dorell reported from Washington.