TSI Roll Up: International Responses to Russian Bombing in Syria

On Wednesday, September 30, Russian began launching air strikes in Syria – a significant development in the 4.5-year conflict. Despite Russian claims that its primary target is ISIS, almost all of Russia’s airstrikes have instead been aimed non-ISIS rebel groups, many of them moderate FSA groups that have previously been vetted and armed by the CIA. Civilians, including young children, have also been killed an injured in several of these strikes.

Below, we have gathered and summarized responses from key international players in the Syria conflict to the Russian intervention:

A day after Russia’s bombing began, France, Germany, the UK, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the U.S. issued a joint statement of concern calling on Russia to “immediately cease its attacks on the Syrian opposition and civilians and to focus its efforts on fighting ISIL.”

Turkey has expressed its strong negative reaction to Russia’s armed intervention in Syria, heightened after Russian fighter jets violated Turkish airspace during bombing runs on October 3 and October 4. The incursions prompted Turkey to summon the Russian Ambassador in Ankara and warn that, “The Russian Federation will be responsible for any undesired incident that may occur.” Turkey’s Foreign Minister then went on Turkish television and stated: “Let me put it bluntly: Turkey’s rules of engagement are valid for Syria’s, Russia’s or another country’s warplanes.” This less than subtle warning implies that Turkey may shoot down future Russian jets that enter its airspace if it perceives that the violations are intentional. On Sunday, October 4, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called the bombing campaign unacceptable, and said that Russia is making “a grave mistake,” before departing for a trip to Europe, where Syria-related issues are expected to dominate his meetings with European leaders.

After meeting with Turkey’s Foreign Minister, NATO’s Secretary General expressed his commitment to Turkey’s security and chastised Russia for “not contributing to the security and stability of the region.” During further NATO emergency meetings on the situation on Monday, October 5, NATO allies called on Russia to “cease and desist, and immediately explain these violations.

The U.S. Government’s public response to Russia’s armed intervention in Syria has involved a string of tepid statements suggesting that while the U.S. administration is not thrilled about Russian strikes against U.S. allies on the ground, it will do little to counter them. In a press conference on October 2, President Obama called Russian air strikes “counterproductive,” and said that the U.S. would not cooperate in their campaign, but also stated that Russia’s current actions were “not particularly different from what they had been doing in the past,” and reiterated that the U.S. was prepared to work with Russia and Iran on a political transition. Obama also confirmed that the U.S. will “continue to reach out to a moderate opposition,” as part of a new strategic push against ISIS in al-Raqqa, where the terrorist group is headquartered.

Responses from individual European powers have been muted. British Prime Minister David Cameron called Russia’s actions a mistake, and urged Putin to “change direction” and focus on ISIS instead of the rest of the Syrian opposition. Over the weekend, British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon reported that an initial British intelligence estimate showed that just 5% of Russian air strikes thus far were actually targeting ISIS. “Our evidence indicates they are dropping unguided munitions in civilian areas, killing civilians, and they are dropping them against the Free Syrian forces fighting Assad,” Fallon said.

The government of France said that Russian airstrikes must focus on ISIS and other terrorist groups including Jabhat al-Nusra. German Chancellor Angela Merkel did not directly address the issue of Russian air strikes, but said on Sunday for the first time that military efforts were needed in Syria in addition to a political process, which would include the opposition and representatives of the current regime.

Like European countries, key Arab stakeholders have stayed relatively quiet on the Russian intervention thus far. Saudi Arabia’s UN Ambassador demanded a stop to the air strikes during this speech to the UN General Assembly on October 1. Beyond that, Gulf States have voiced concern over Russia’s actions in meetings with the U.S. government. One notable exception is Egypt, which has seen warming relations with Russia in recent months. On Saturday, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry gave an interview in which he welcomed Russia’s actions as a step towards curtailing terrorism in the region.

Iran has, not surprisingly, come out in support of Russian air strikes in Syria. The day after the strikes began, a Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman stated: “Iran considers Russia’s military action against armed terrorist groups in Syria as a step toward the global fight against terrorism and the resolution of the ongoing crisis in the region.” Iranian officials have hinted that they would also support Russian air strikes in Iraq, where Iranian troops are currently engaged. Iran has also denied reports that it has deployed hundreds of additional soldiers to Syria in preparation for a joint Iranian-Russian offensive.

The Syrian government strongly supports the Russian intervention. According to a statement issued by Bashar al-Assad’s office, the Russian air strike campaign was initiated upon request from the Syrian government. Since then, Syrian officials have continued to strongly support the Russian intervention in the media. On Sunday, Assad told Iranian state television that the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS had failed, and that Russian actions were vital to prevent the entire region from begin destroyed.

Iraq, which is part of a recent alliance with Iran, Syria, Russia, and Hezbollah purportedly to fight ISIS in the region, has also come out in support of the Russian air strikes in Syria. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told PBS that he welcome Russians to the fight against Daesh (another name for ISIS) in Syria and said that “they are welcome” to join the international coalition efforts in Iraq as well.

Russia continued its disinformation campaign, denying claims that it is targeting civilian infrastructure and moderate rebel groups, all while ramping up the pace of attacks. Russia and Syria have apparently failed to completely sync their respective disinformation campaigns. This was illustrated by open-source analyst Elliot Higgins, who found that the Russian Ministry of Defense and Syrian state news agency (SANA) were both incorrectly identifying images from Russia’s airstrike against the moderate FSA affiliate Tajumu al-Azzeh in Lataminah. Russia claimed the strike was against an ISIS command post in al-Raqqa, while SANA said that it targeted a militant warehouse in Idlib.