(CNSNews.com) – The Russian military says it has carried out three days of “massive” missile and bomb strikes against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) targets across northern Syria, after President Vladimir Putin early this week blamed terrorists for the air crash in Egypt that killed 224 people.
The development earned a grudging acknowledgment from the Obama administration that Russia may now indeed be focusing on the group which Moscow insists has been its target from the outset in the seven week-old campaign.
A spokesman for the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition was unimpressed, however, questioning the “antiquated tactics,” skills and capabilities of the Russian forces.
In addition to scores of bombing sorties carried out from the Syrian airbase that Russia is using, long-range aircraft flew missions directly from bases in Russia, dropping bombs and firing air-launched cruise missiles, the military said.
The strikes on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday hit ISIS targets in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor provinces in the east and north-east, and in Aleppo and Idlib provinces in the north-west, military officials said.
Tu-160 Blackjack and Tu-95 Bear missile platforms flew missions from Russian soil lasting between eight-and-a-half and nine-and-a-half hours. Tu-22 Backfire long-range supersonic bombers flew from a Russian base just north of Georgia to deliver bombs from high altitude.
Targets included ISIS-controlled oil production and oil transfer sites, vehicle convoys, ammunition depots, command centers, training camps, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and senior officers reported to Putin.
Thursday’s targets included an ISIS headquarters in Idlib city, Colonel General Andrei Kartapolov of the armed forces general staff told a briefing, describing the three days of strikes as “massive.”
A coalition spokesman in Baghdad was cool about the Russian operations.
“I know there was some discussion that the Russians had a large air armada flying into Raqqa to conduct these operations,” U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren told reporters in a teleconference briefing Wednesday. “Those are antiquated tactics. We don’t even use those type of tactics anymore.”
“The idea of putting, you know, ten ships in the air at one time, or 12 or even more, are very old fashioned,” Warren continued. “And those are the type of tactics needed only if you don’t possess the technology, the skills and the capabilities to conduct the type of precision strikes that our coalition conducts.”
On Thursday, U.S. deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters in Manila that “in the past” most Russian airstrikes did not target ISIS but “other elements of the opposition,” and were focused on protecting the Assad regime.
“We’ve seen some Russian focus on Raqqa as well, and on ISIL,” he conceded. “If that becomes a trend and that continues, again, we think that would be the most constructive role for Russia to play.”
Rhodes said what the U.S. wants to see is Russia not just going after ISIS, but also stopping targeting what he called “the moderate opposition” that needs to take part in efforts to achieve a political transition that ends the civil war.
“I think we would want to see that there is follow-through and that the follow-through not just be strikes against ISIL, but a stopping of the strikes against groups that we believe could be part of the moderate opposition.”
‘Work together as allies’
Since it launched its airstrike campaign in Syria on September 30 Russia has been calling for the U.S. and U.S.-led coalition to cooperate with it to increase the effectiveness of all efforts against a common foe.
The U.S. has been loath to do so, given its view that Putin’s real aim is to prop up President Bashar al-Assad, by targeting not just ISIS but a range of rebel groups arrayed against the regime, including some the U.S. believes must be part of a solution to the conflict.
In the aftermath of the bombing of a Russian aircraft over the Sinai and last Friday’s terror attacks in Paris – both claimed by ISIS – Putin has shifted his focus to France, which has itself stepped up its airstrikes around Raqqa, flying from bases in Jordan and the UAE.
On Tuesday, Putin ordered the captain of the Moskva missile cruiser, deployed in the eastern Mediterranean in support of the Russian mission, to cooperate with the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, which French President Francois Hollande has ordered to the area with accompanying task group vessels following the Paris attacks.
“A French naval group will soon approach your area, headed by an aircraft carrier,” Putin told Moskva captain Oleg Krivorog. “You need to establish direct contact with them and work together as allies.”
Separately, Russian chief of general staff Valery Gerasimov and his French counterpart Pierre de Villiers held a phone conversation on what the defense ministry in Moscow called “consolidation of efforts against international terrorist organizations.”
“Gerasimov emphasized that the terrorist attacks in Paris and the one on board of the Russian airliner were links of one chain, and that grief and anger had to help Russia and France to unite efforts in fighting international terrorism,” it said.
Hollande is planning to visit both Washington and Moscow next week to discuss Syria and the fight against ISIS, his office said Tuesday. On Monday he called for a grand coalition against the terrorist group.
State Department spokesman John Kirby declined Wednesday to comment on Putin’s call for Russia and France to work “as allies.”
He reaffirmed that the U.S. was not cooperating with Russia “militarily” against ISIS.
“If Russia is serious about going after ISIL and wants to make that their focus, then that’s a conversation that we’re still willing to have. And neither President Obama nor Secretary [of State John] Kerry has ruled out the possibility of cooperation in the future if, in fact, that’s where Russia wants to take things militarily.”
Kirby reiterated that support for the Assad regime was “a non-starter” for any country wanting to contribute to the U.S.-led coalition’s efforts against ISIS.