WASHINGTON — Russia has conducted its first airstrike in Syria, near the city of Homs, a senior U.S. official told CNN on Wednesday .
The Russians told the United States that it should not fly U.S. warplanes in Syria, but gave no geographical information about where Russia planned to strike. The senior official said U.S. missions are continuing as normal.
Earlier Wednesday, the upper house of the Russian parliament gave President Vladimir Putin approval to use the air force in Syria, according to state media.
“The Federation Council unanimously supported the President’s request — 162 votes in favor of granting permission,” Kremlin Chief of Staff Sergey Ivanov said, according to ITAR-Tass.
The vote came after a request by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for military assistance in fighting ISIS, Ivanov said.
‘They are ready’
After several days of familiarization flights, and the collection of potential targeting information by drones, the Russian air force was known to be ready.
Four Russian Su-34 Fullback fighter jets are now at the Latakia air base in Syria, and more than 600 Russian troops are in place.
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told reporters Tuesday that Secretary of Defense Ash Carter directed his staff to “open lines of communication with Russia on de-confliction.”
The timing of these discussions is to be worked out in the coming days. The purpose of the discussions is “to ensure the safety of coalition air crews,” he said.
Cook added that the two nations have common ground when it comes to fighting ISIS, also known as ISIL, with Carter making clear that “the goal should be to take the fight to ISIL and not to defend the Assad regime.”
Just ISIS or something more?
Russia had positioned itself to launch airstrikes in Syria, but its movements suggested that its targets might be something other than ISIS, according to U.S. officials.
“We see some very sophisticated air defenses going into those airfields. We see some very sophisticated air-to-air aircraft going into these airfields. I have not seen ISIL flying any airplanes that require SA-15s or SA-22s (Russian missiles). I have not seen ISIL flying any airplanes that require sophisticated air-to-air capabilities,” Gen. Phillip Breedlove, NATO’s supreme allied commander, said on Monday.
“I’m looking at the capabilities and the capacities that are being created and I determine from that what might be their intent. These very sophisticated air defense capabilities are not about ISIL. They’re about something else,” he concluded.
Separately, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work confirmed to the Senate on Tuesday that Russia has violated a missile treaty with the United States but indicated that the administration didn’t plan to take any action at present.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, asked Work at a hearing whether he thought the Russians had breached the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty governing the elimination of medium-range missiles.
“We believe very strongly that they did,” he responded. But he also said, “This is still in discussions and we have not decided on any particular action at this point,” noting that the United States has been in contact with the Russians over the issue.
U.S. efforts stuck in neutral
Meanwhile, America’s own efforts to turn the tide in Syria have faltered.
The Pentagon has stopped moving new recruits from Syria to its training centers in Jordan and Turkey to train and equip moderate rebels to fight ISIS, a U.S. defense official told CNN on Tuesday. The troubled program has several dozen fighters in training right now, but new fighters will not be brought in until the White House makes a decision on how it wants to change the effort.
Several options are being considered, including having the rebels train to provide assistance in calling in airstrikes and conducting communications.
The official described the action as a “pause” in the effort until a way ahead is decided. Also paused for now is vetting of Syrians who say they want to join the effort.
Putin mocked the stumbling train-and-equip program in his address to the United Nations on Monday.
Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama were confrontational toward each other in their morning speeches, then met to discuss Syria and Ukraine later in the day.
“We have clarity on their objectives,” one senior administration official said after the meeting. “Their objectives are to go after ISIL and to support the government.”
Defense officials have previously told CNN that the United States believes Moscow may be worried about whether al-Assad can stay in power and wants to be in position to support a proxy should the situation collapse.
Moscow backs Syria
Russia is also a close ally of al-Assad and may want to bolster him, while the United States has repeatedly called for him to go in order to resolve Syria’s five-year civil war.
U.S. intelligence has observed the possible staging of multiple rocket launch systems at Russian ports, which could be loaded onto ships bound for Syria. It has also observed a small number of Russian long-range bombers being moved into airfields in the southern part of Russia, which could give Moscow a long-range heavy bomber capability in Syria, according to the officials.
Syria and Russia have established a coordination center in Hamah province, though its purpose remains unclear, officials said.
Moscow is also sending drones in the southwest Idlib, Hamah and Latakia areas to gather reconnaissance and intelligence — though none of those regions is near ISIS positions.
The intelligence on Russia’s actions make clear that the United States is dedicating a substantial amount of satellite and eavesdropping capabilities to monitoring the developments around the clock.