Russia Retaliates Against Islamic State in Syria

Russia expands its airstrikes in Syria after blaming radical Islamists for crashing a Russian airliner.

Russian president Vladimir Putin observes operations at the National Defense Control Center in Moscow, November 17
Russian president Vladimir Putin observes operations at the National Defense Control Center in Moscow, November 17 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

Russia expanded its airstrikes in Syria on Tuesday after investigators said the self-declared Islamic State in the country was responsible for the crash of a Russian airliner in the Sinai Peninsula last month that killed 224 passengers and crew.

Russian jet have so far mostly attacked the less fanatical opponents of Syrian president Bashar Assad.

Military commanders told President Vladimir Putin that the Russian air force had carried out some 2,300 sorties in Syria since it started bombing there two months ago.

In an earlier meeting, Putin vowed Russia would find those responsible for downing the airliner and punish them.

France hopes for alliance

In Tuesday’s strikes against the radical Islamist group that also claimed responsibility for attacks in Paris on Friday, Russia for the first time deployed its Tu-95 strategic bomber, an icon of the Cold War called “Bear” by NATO.

Putin also ordered the Russian missile cruiser Moskva, deployed off the Syrian coast, to treat an incoming French battlegroup led by the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle “as allies.”

France’s foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, told TF1 television that Russia’s strategy was shifting. “Maybe today this grand coalition with Russia is possible,” he suggested.

François Hollande, the French president, called for a united front against the Islamic State after its attack in Paris left more than 130 dead.

Doubts about Putin’s motives

Other Western diplomats remain skeptical.

Putin earlier said his objective in Syria is not to defeat the self-styled caliphate but rather to “rescue” Assad.

His airstrikes have targeted Arab- and Western-backed rebels that threaten the heavily-populated western and southern territories Assad still holds.

The Islamic State controls much of the east of Syria, including the oilfields there.

From the beginning of the uprising against him more than four years ago, Assad has said that the opposition is wholly composed of terrorists.

That became a self-fulfilling prophecy when his regime imprisoned dissidents and targeted relatively moderate rebels in the south while releasing the fanatics and ignoring their territorial gains in the east.