After finally confirming that the Russian passenger plan that disintegrated over Egypt last month, killing more than 200 people, was downed by an explosive device, the Kremlin will double its attacks on “Islamist” targets in Syria, the country’s defense minister said Tuesday. The effort will expand to include 25 long-range bombers based in Russia, naval assets in the Mediterranean Sea, as well as more short-range bombers and fighter-bombers in Syria.
“We are conducting a mass airstrike campaign against Islamic State targets in Syria,” said Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, according to the Kremlin-run media outlet RT. “We have now doubled the number of sorties, which is allowing us to conduct operations throughout the length and breadth of the country.”
The addition of long-range strategic bombers to the military assets deployed in Syria is a significant step. The new planes being brought into the fight include the iconic Russian Tu-95 “Bear” bomber and the Tu-160, the largest combat aircraft ever built. Both can carry far heavier payloads than the Russian combat aircraft currently active in Syria.
The Russian military will also nearly double the number of Su-35 bombers and Su-27 fighters in Syria, adding 37 to the 50 originally stationed there, where Russian forces are supporting the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
The announcement was made in a meeting of Russia’s top defense officials and was chaired by President Vladimir Putin. “By conducting military missions in Syria, you are protecting Russia and her citizens,” Putin told his military chiefs. “Our air campaign in Syria must not only be continued, it must be boosted, in such a way that the criminals are made aware that retribution is inevitable.”
The Russian approach to ISIS appears to have changed in the wake of the discovery that the Metrojet airliner that went down in October was bombed.
Russia’s original justification for its intervention in the Syrian civil war had been largely about defeating ISIS. However, when Putin’s forces arrived in Syria, international observers noted that the focus of Russian bombing runs was almost exclusively the rebel groups that are opposing Assad, not ISIS.
However, on Tuesday there were media reports of a Russian cruise missile assault on the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa. The Kremlin also publicly ordered its guided missile cruiser Moskva stationed in the eastern Mediterranean to await the arrival of a French naval task force including the aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle, which is expected to leave for the region shortly, and to treat the French as an “ally” when they arrive. French forces are being dispatched in response to Friday’s terror attack in Paris that killed some 130 people and left hundreds more wounded.
After establishing lines of communication with the French, “We need to develop of a joint action plan for both sea and air operations,” Putin said in instructions to Russian naval officers that were made public.
The ramp-up of Russian involvement in the fight against ISIS is likely to prompt a mixed reaction in the United States, where many prominent Republicans have been attacking the Obama administration – which is currently bombing ISIS on a daily basis – for failing to be aggressive enough in confronting the terror group.
International observers will also be watching closely to see if the escalation truly is directed at ISIS, or if Russian bombs continue falling in disproportionate numbers on rebels fighting the Assad regime.