The Russian airstrikes on Syria are a sign that U.S. policy is working, a senior State Department official told shocked Syrian-American advocates in a private meeting on Monday.
The “Russians wouldn’t have to help Assad if we didn’t weaken him,” U.S. special envoy for Syria Michael Ratney said, according to multiple participants in the meeting and contemporaneous notes. Russian intervention, he went on to say, is a sign of success for American policy on Syria.
The special envoy’s remarks come even as Russia began launching long-range cruise missiles into Syria from the Caspian Sea. It’s a move that Pentagon officials called an attempt to both emasculate the United States and support the Assad regime.
“This is Russia demonstrating on a global stage that it has a lot of reach,” one U.S. defense official explained. “And we are not responding.”
Ratney’s boast also angered some of the Syrian-American advocates and humanitarian representatives gathered at the State Department for the meeting with him earlier this week. The United States has repeatedly declined to intervene militarily in Syria against the Assad regime, despite President Obama’s own claim of a “red line” for the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons. As a matter of congressionally-mandated policy, the Pentagon will only train Syrian rebels who fight against the so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS—and not Assad.
“The U.S. should not take Russian intervention as a sign that their policy to weaken Assad has been a success,” one meeting participant told The Daily Beast. “Instead, it shows that we have not been able to lead and our half-measures have led the Russians to believe there are no consequences to attacking our allies and helping Assad kill and displace civilians.”
Ratney went even further when directly asked what the United States was doing, even diplomatically, to protect civilians from the aerial assaults led by the Assad regime. He said, in essence, that Assad’s aerial bombardment had become Russia’s problem.
“With the Russian intervention, they really own the barrel bombs now. We hope that they would use their influence to make that practice stop,” Ratney responded. “If Russians are coming in to bolster the regime, they should use their influence to stop attacks on civilians… What Russia is doing is disgusting.”
Ratney was not immediately available for comment. But Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain was mortified when told of Ratney’s remarks on how Russia’s intervention is a sign that U.S. policy is working.
“He should be on Saturday Night Live. I strongly recommend it. I guess if Russia takes all of Syria and Iraq, then that shows they’re really weak. It’s ridiculous… just delusional,” McCain told The Daily Beast.
Nearly a quarter of a million people—including approximately 12,000 children—have been killed since the Syrian conflict broke out in March 2011, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Putin began his campaign in Syria in late September, with reverberations that have echoed throughout the region.
Ratney went on to say that he thought Russia was making a “disastrous mistake” in its anti-ISIS strategy by intervening. But Russia’s policy thus far appears targeted primarily at attacking American-backed rebels, not ISIS militants.
Following the publication of this article, State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez responded by saying Ratney did not “boast” about U.S. efforts: “When speaking at an off-the-record gathering of Syrian American activists, Mr. Ratney explained that the Russians escalated their military presence in Syria to bolster Asad, undoubtedly out of a sense that Asad’s grip was weakening… Russia could choose to use its influence with the regime to pressure Asad to stop barrel-bombing his own people. By choosing not to do so, Russia is looking the other way as innocent Syrians continue to suffer.”
On Wednesday, Russian forces launched cruise missiles for the first time in the war—toward the Syrian city of Homs. ISIS is not known to have a substantial presence in Homs.
The attacks came from ships nearly 1,000 miles away, in the Caspian Sea. Russia has ships that could have conducted similar attacks 93 miles away from Syria’s shores, U.S. defense officials said. To them, that indicated that the long-range attack was meant as a signal to the United States. It’s the latest in a series of steps meant to demonstrate Moscow’s military prowess—and Washington’s inability to curb it.
“It makes very little military sense to launch land attack cruise missiles from that range given there is a plethora of capabilities they have that are much closer” to Syria, one senior U.S. defense official explained to The Daily Beast. “This was done to demonstrate a message to us.”
The roughly 30 missiles crossed the Iranian and Iraqi airspace en route, suggesting the Russians had permission from those governments to cross into their airspace.
That Iraq could turn on the United States is particularly stinging for many in the U.S. military, given the U.S. effort there over the past 13 years. The U.S. military has 3,000 troops in Iraq to train and advise Iraqi forces—and has launched thousands of strikes there over the past year in a push to wrest Iraqi cities back from the self-proclaimed Islamic State. The Baghdad government appeared to have allowed Russian forces to use Iraqi airspace in a slap to the United States, regardless.
Moreover, U.S. officials suspect that in recent days a mid-level Iraqi delegation traveled to Moscow to discuss how Russia could help the Iraqi campaign against ISIS. And as recently as Wednesday, Iraqi Shiite lawmakers called for increased Russian intervention.
The barrage from the Caspian Sea, which struck 11 targets, is the first time Russia has shown it could—and would—strike from such a long distance.
But it is not the first time Russia has used its strikes in Syria to expose the limits of U.S. strategy there. The weeklong Russian strikes have primarily struck opponents to Assad, with the exception of ISIS, including U.S.-backed rebels in western Syria. And U.S. officials have privately conceded there is little they can do to protect their allies on the ground.
Update 10/08/15 11:17 AM: The article was updated to include a statement from State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez received after publication.