Russia Claims to be Bombing ISIS Ruthlessly; Obama Says US Still Doesn’t Know if Russians Are Onboard

Patrick Goodenough | November 22, 2015 | 7:02pm EST
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A Russian Tupolev Tu-160 “Blackjack” supersonic strategic bomber, escorted by an Su-30 fighter, carries out a very long-range cruise missile strike mission against purported ISIS targets in Syria on November 20, 2015. The Tu-160’s flight took more than 16 hours. The Su-30 took off from an airbase in Syria to escort the approaching bomber. (Screengrab: Russian Defense Ministry video)

( – The United States still doesn’t know whether Russia can “make the strategic adjustment” necessary for it to join the coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL), President Obama said on Sunday.

Speaking in Kuala Lumpur on the final day of a visit to South-East Asia, Obama said the focus of Russia’s air campaign in Syria has been “the moderate opposition” and its principal goal appears to have been “to fortify the position of the Assad regime.”

“It will be helpful if Russia directs its focus on ISIL, and I do think that as a consequence of ISIL claiming responsibility for bringing down their plane [over the Sinai on Oct. 31], there is an increasing awareness on the part of President Putin that ISIL poses a greater threat to them than anything else in the region,” Obama said.

“The question at this point is whether they can make the strategic adjustment that allows them to be effective partners with us and the other 65 countries who are already part of the counter-ISIL campaign,” he added. “And we don't know that yet.”  

That assessment came despite Russian military reports that – over just four days last week – it fired more than 100 air- and sea-launched missiles and dropped more than 1,400 tons of bombs, on more than 820 targets which Moscow claims are predominantly ISIS facilities.

On Friday, military commanders reported to President Vladimir Putin on a four-day “retaliation” operation which he ordered after determining that the Sinai plane crash was caused by a terrorist bomb. ISIS claimed responsibility for the incident, which cost 224 lives.

The hundreds of strikes from Tuesday to Friday included cruise missiles launched from ships in the Caspian Sea, and air-launched missiles fired from aircraft that flew from an airbase in the Caucasus more than five hours’ flying time from the targets.

A Tu-160 and its escort during Friday’s long-range cruise missile strike mission. (Screengrab: Russian Defense Ministry video)

In the most ambitious mission yet in the seven-week campaign, supersonic Tu-160 bombers took off from an airbase north of the Arctic Circle, circumnavigated Europe before flying eastward over the Mediterranean and launching cruise missiles, then returning to base over Iran and the Caspian Sea. The unprecedented (for Russia) strike mission, which required mid-air refueling, was some 16,000 kilometers long and took more than 16 hours.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told Putin the main goal of the escalated strikes had been to “destroy ISIS military and oil-and-gas infrastructure facilities,” adding that 23 training bases, 19 arms and explosives production plants, 47 ammunition and supply warehouses were among targets destroyed.

He claimed that cruise missile strikes against one facility in north-eastern Syria alone had “resulted in the elimination of over 600 militants.”

Despite the claims by Moscow, Obama continues to voice doubt that Russia is really focusing its attacks on ISIS.

“So far, over the last several weeks, when they started taking strikes in Syria, their principal targets have been the moderate opposition that they felt threatened Assad,” he said on Sunday.

“Their principal goal appeared to be – if you follow the strikes that they took – to fortify the position of the Assad regime.”

Obama said that, during a brief exchange with Putin at a G20 summit in Turkey last week he had stressed the need to “go after the people who killed Russian citizens” in the aircraft bombing.

“And those aren’t the groups that they were currently hitting with strikes,” Obama said. “ So they're going to have to make an adjustment in terms of what they're prioritizing.”

The U.S. and other members of the coalition maintain that Assad cannot be part of any political solution to the civil war. Russia, a longstanding Assad ally, says that’s for the Syrian people – not outsiders – to decide.

Obama said that, at multilateral talks in Vienna on a political solution to the conflict, Russia agreed to a political transition process taking place, but had yet to commit to Assad “moving out.”

“ I think we’ll find out over the next several weeks whether or not we can bring about that change of perspective with the Russians,” he said.

The French aircraft carrier, and flagship of the French Navy, Charles de Gaulle, arrived off the Syrian coast on Sunday. (AP Photo, File)

New cooperation with France

In contrast to Washington’s skepticism about Russia’s actions and motives, France has adjusted its approach in the aftermath of the terror attacks in Paris, claimed by ISIS.

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian cited the Russian cruise missile assault on the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa and said Moscow has evidently “shifted” its position by bombing known ISIS targets.

French President Francois Hollande called last week for a “large and singular coalition” involving “all who can really help fight the terrorist army.” Hollande is due to hold talks with Putin in Moscow on Thursday, two days after meeting with Obama in Washington.

Sensing a softening on the part of France, Putin has ordered his Navy vessels in the Mediterranean to cooperate closely with the French aircraft carrier group which arrived off the Syrian coast on Sunday..

Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a teleconference briefing with his defense minister and military officials about the Syrian airstrike campaign, on Friday, November 20, 2015. (Photo: Russian presidency)

In his briefing on Friday, Shoigu also told Putin that, in line with his instructions, the Russian military has “begun organizing cooperation with France’s armed forces.”

The U.S. administration remains leery. Obama in Malaysia did not directly respond to part of a reporter’s question noting that Russia would be part of the grand coalition Hollande is proposing.

But, after addressing his concerns about Russia’s continuing support for Assad, and his view that Assad cannot stay in power Obama said, “there are a large number of members of this coalition, including President Hollande, who agree with me on that.”

At Friday’s daily press briefing, State Department spokesman John Kirby sounded dubious about the potential for Russia to be part of the coalition..

“If Russia is serious about this, about going after ISIL and changing the calculus of the military activities it’s conducting inside Syria, well, then that’s great, and we’d be willing to have a discussion with them about how they might be able to contribute to coalition operations,” he said. “We’re just not at that stage right now.”

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