And yet, the recent Russian moves, which threaten to undermine U.S.-led efforts over the last year, were met with hardly a shrug in some circles in Washington.
“There are not discussions happening here about what this means for U.S. influence on the war against ISIS,” one defense official told The Daily Beast.
That’s despite the fact that some unverified online videos indicate that the opening phases of such operations may have already begun.
A video posted September 15 to YouTube appears to show Russian military forces in tanks alongside Syrian forces in the Lattakia region, a traditional Assad stronghold that has come under threat from anti-regime forces.
Since last Friday, Moscow has sent two dozen additional fighter jets to Syria, bringing the total number in the country to 28. The same day, Defense Secretary Ash Carter spoke by phone to his Russian counterpart about what the Pentagon called “mechanisms for deconfliction,” a strong indication that Russia intended to conduct airstrikes in the same areas that U.S. forces and their coalition partners are now operating against ISIS.
After more than a year of U.S.-led airstrikes, the political and military situation in Syria appears to have reached a critical turning point, American officials and experts said. The U.S. campaign is effectively at a stalemate, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said. In recent weeks, as Assad lost ground and the Obama administration’s Syria policy came under withering criticism for failing to train and equip any significant rebel force, the Russians began moving military equipment, supplies, and troops into Syria.
The massing of Russian force would seem to add a new and potentially volatile element to the chaotic war, with the U.S. struggling to find allies on the ground or blunt the spread of ISIS, and U.S. military analysts accusing their senior officers of distorting intelligence to paint a rosier picture of the military situation.
U.S. officials said publicly they were concerned and keeping a channel of communication open to Moscow.
But privately, many seemed to welcome a Russian intervention if it alleviated the burden on the U.S. for fighting ISIS, even if that meant diminished American influence over how the war ends. Intervening on behalf of an ally bring its own challenges, they note.
The Russians “are going to inherit Assad’s mess,” a second defense official said. “I don’t know if they have looked at it from all possible angles.”
“Watching the Russians take the initiative is the most clear example yet of the complete abdication of U.S. leadership and responsibility in the region,” Christopher Harmer, a naval analyst at the Washington D.C.-based Institute for the Study of War, told The Daily Beast.
Privately, many seemed to welcome a Russian intervention in Syria. “There are some here who think the Russians could find themselves in another Afghanistan,” one U.S. official said.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, asked by reporters if the U.S. had any insights into Moscow’s endgame, replied, “To be blunt about it, no.”
State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters Monday that the U.S. “concerns remain in place” about growing Russian moves in Syria.
Carter has not said a word about what many are calling an “inflection point” in Syria. On Monday afternoon, he held a Lean In event at the Pentagon with Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, encouraging women in the military to support each other through small groups. Over the weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry repeated the Obama administration’s position that Assad must step down in order to forge a political settlement, but he remained open to postponing that departure to some unspecified date. Kerry has spoken with his Russian counterpart three times in the past week.