U.S. intelligence officials warn that Russia's military intervention in Syria has stirred the wrath of Islamic radicals who may retaliate by staging terrorist attacks inside Russia. Terrorism analysts say they are already seeing signs of fresh militant anger toward Moscow, which could raise the domestic political cost to Putin for his foreign intervention and further complicate the decisions facing U.S. policymakers.
Such attacks would serve as revenge for Putin’s defense of Syrian ruler Bashar Assad against a rebellion fueled by militants tied to al Qaeda and the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. “There are very public calls on social media by terrorist groups to attack Russian targets,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “It could very well result in a renewed focus on attacks in the Russian homeland.” A senior U.S. intelligence echoed that assessment, saying that “extremists are feeding off Moscow’s actions.”
The intelligence official added that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, is likely to use social media to encourage lone-wolf attacks inside Russia similar to those recently seen in Europe and the U.S. In May, ISIS issued its first Russian-language online propaganda magazine, and a pro-ISIS website and social media channel, Furat Media, has been translating ISIS messages from Arabic into Russian since June.
The U.S. is going to suspend its faltering Syrian rebel training program, U.S. officials said Friday in a move they characterized as a "pause." "We're going to take an operational pause," Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Christine Wormuth said on a conference call with reporters Friday.
"It's not halting the program," added Brett McGurk, the deputy special envoy for the anti-ISIS effort. "It's adapting it." Earlier Friday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said during a news conference in London that the U.S. "remains committed" to training forces in Syria against ISIS, but is looking for ways to "improve" the program. The New York Times first reported the U.S. move.
The new strategy will shift toward supplying military aid to opposition leaders fighting ISIS instead of training and equipping rebels. The administration's effort to enhance the moderate Syrian opposition through training and equipment came under heavy scrutiny in recent weeks after the White House acknowledged the program had only succeeded in graduating a handful of recruits, despite spending nearly $500 million on the endeavor.
Administration officials stressed that Syrian rebel commanders would continue to receive military equipment. "We're going to be providing more basic kinds of equipment to these groups," Wormuth said. "That's how we will mitigate the risk."
Vladimir Putin has proposed setting up a Nato-style joint task force of post-Soviet states to secure the borders of Central Asia amid fears of Taliban “spillover” from Afghanistan. A fresh sign of the Russian president’s new military assertiveness, the deployment raises the possibility of Russian and allied troops being deployed along Tajikistan’s 800-mile border with Afghanistan, and Moscow tightening its influence of governments in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
It comes a day after Barack Obama said American troops would stay in Afghanistan for at least two more years – itself a tacit admission that the Afghan government is unable to tackle the threat of a resurgent Taliban alone. "The situation there [in Afghanistan] is genuinely close to critical," Mr Putin told a summit of former Soviet states in Burabay, Kazakhstan. “Terrorists of different stripes are gaining more influence and do not hide their plans for further expansion. One of their aims is the break into the Central Asian region.”
Although Russia initially said it intervened in Syria to help defeat ISIS, the campaign has mostly targeted other rebel groups. And Russian officials have admitted that Moscow's intervention in Syria is focused on bolstering Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with the end goal of giving the outside world a choice between Assad or ISIS, Bloomberg Business reports.
Moscow's intervention, which has consisted of significant arms shipments and a high frequency of airstrikes conducted in coordination with ground assaults by the Assad regime, is aimed at recapturing territory from all rebels including both CIA-backed nationalist rebels and Islamist militias of varying strength and radicalism.
“In the West, they talk about ‘moderate opposition,’ but we so far haven’t seen any in Syria,” General Andrey Kartapolov told the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, according to a Bloomberg translation. “Any person who takes up arms and fights the legal authorities, how moderate can he be?”
Turkish warplanes shot down a Russian jet Tuesday that Turkey said violated its airspace on the border with Syria, a major escalation in the Syrian conflict that could further strain relations between Russia and the West. Russian officials confirmed that a Russian Su-24 attack aircraft was shot down but insisted it had not violated the airspace of Turkey, a member of the NATO alliance.
Later, a Russian rescue helicopter was damaged by a rebel missile in Syria after picking up one of the two pilots who apparently ejected from the fire-engulfed plane, a Syrian activist group reported. A separate video purportedly posted by rebels appeared to show the body of the second pilot. In Washington, President Obama called for de-escalation but said Turkey has the right to defend its airspace.
The Free Syrian Army, a conglomerate of several rebel groups fighting against Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria, has uploaded a video to YouTube showcasing its apparent success striking a direct hit on a Russian helicopter that had recently landed. The fighters claim they shot down the helicopter Tuesday during the day, and that it was located near the crash site of a SU-24 Fighter Jet that was shot down earlier by Turkish forces. The strike occurred in Latakia province, Syria, which is controlled by forces loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
The rebels used a U.S.-made BGM-71 TOW missile, a powerful guided anti-tank missile to destroy the Russian helicopter. After striking a direct-hit on their target, they exclaimed, “Allahu Akbar!” Some 23 rebel groups are supplied with U.S. TOW missiles, according to reports. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), an anti-Assad, anti-ISIS advocacy group, confirmed that the Syrian fighters destroyed a Russian helicopter on Tuesday.