(CNSNews.com) – Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a “proxy war” against the United State when Russian jets bombed CIA-trained rebels in Syria, and the U.S. military should have been ordered to retaliate, former U.S. Army vice chief of staff General Jack Keane said Thursday.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the retired four-star general said retaliatory options could have included bombing the runway of the Syrian airbase being used by the Russians, and establishing and enforcing protective zones.
The U.S. should also have made it clear to the Russians that the coalition would conduct its air operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) anytime, anywhere and that “the Russians should stay out of our way if they want to avoid confrontation.”
Instead, Keane said, U.S. aircraft were now “rarely” flying against ISIS targets in Syria, but rather focusing their efforts in Iraq.
(U.S. Central Command tallies for coalition airstrikes against ISIS from October 1-7 are 44 in Syria, compared to 115 in Iraq.)
Keane, chairman of the Institute for the Study of War, gave a scathing assessment of the Obama administration’s response to Russian maneuvering in the Middle East and Ukraine.
He said Putin, believing U.S. and European leadership to be weak, “is counting on the U.S. fear of escalation and fear of confrontation to stop any thought of retaliation.”
“Historically, aggression unanswered, has led to more aggression.”
“If we continue to wring our hands and continue to be dominated by fear and opposed to instilling fear, then Russian aggression will not just advance in the Middle East – it will with certainty escalate in the Baltics and eastern Europe,” Keane said.
Russia launched a campaign of airstrikes on September 30, ostensibly targeting ISIS but according to the U.S. focusing more on other rebel groups, including U.S.-backed ones, in an evident bid to strengthen its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Keane said it was not in error that the Russian warplanes “struck, continuously, moderate rebel forces trained by the Central Intelligence Agency.”
“This was no accident,” he said. “Targets were provided by the Syrian regime and they were accurate. How can the United States stand by and do nothing?”
“United States military should have been given the mission to retaliate. Options likely to be considered among many others: crater the al-Assad [airbase] runway; establish free zones – that are essentially no-bomb zones – as sanctuaries for refugees and U.S.-backed opposition groups; strike Assad’s helicopter fleet that is barrel bombing its own people, just to name a few.”
Under questioning later, Keane said he does not believe Obama will take any action to protect opposition groups in Syria now under Russian bombardment – “which he could, by establishing free zones for them and certainly other actions that he could take to protect them.”
“As it pertains to the rest of Syria, we don’t have a strategy to defeat ISIS in Syria,” he said. “It doesn’t exist.”
‘America doesn’t avoid our enemies’
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) noted that the Pentagon has confirmed U.S. aircraft operating over Syria have been diverted to avoid Russian planes.
“Can you recall a time in which any American troop has been told to change his action to avoid an enemy?” Cotton asked Keane.
“In modern warfare, since the United States has had global responsibility, I don’t have a reference for it,” Keane replied.
Turning to another witness at the hearing, retired U.S. Marine General James Jones, a former National Security Advisor, Cotton asked him if he could recall such an instance.
“General Jones, you have a long and distinguished career as well. Can you recall a time when we’ve told American troops to avoid an enemy?”
“No,” Jones replied.
“I certainly haven’t served as long as you two have, but I can’t recall receiving or giving such an order,” said Cotton, a U.S. Army veteran with combat service in Iraq and Afghanistan. “America doesn’t avoid our enemies.”
Asked at a daily press briefing Thursday whether the administration thinks the U.S. and Russia are engaged in a “proxy war” in Syria, State Department spokesman John Kirby said, “it’s not an outcome that anybody wants – a conflict with Russia over the future of Syria, whether it’s directly or indirectly.”
Nobody wants to see that,” Kirby said, adding that that was why Secretary of State John Kerry was maintaining regular dialogue with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.