THE LEVANT – Russia became the third nation to criticize the Obama administration on Thursday, following President Barack Obama’s announcement that he plans to expand a campaign of bombing against the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) to include targets inside Syria.
Iranian and Syrian officials slammed the White House for excluding them from an international coalition formed to destroy the terror group.
Later in the day, the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin – a key ally of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad – warned the U.S.that it would be an ‘act of aggression’ and ‘a gross violation of international law.’
The challenge came from Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich in Moscow.
A state-run Syrian newspaper also warned that U.S. airstrikes over Syrian territory could trigger the ‘first sparks of fire’ in the region.
Using an alternative name for ISIS, Lukashevich said that Obama ‘has spoken directly about the possibility of strikes by the U.S. armed forces against ISIL positions in Syria without the consent of the legitimate government.’.
‘This step, in the absence of a UN Security Council decision, would be an act of aggression, a gross violation of international law.’
Syria also repeated its demand that the US must coordinate with the government in Damascus before launching air strikes inside its borders..
‘Any action of any kind without the consent of the Syrian government would be an attack on Syria,’ National Reconciliation Minister Ali Haidar said Thursday
Obama indicated in a prime-time speech Wednesday night that he doesn’t much care what the Syrian government thinks.
He announced that he was authorizing U.S. airstrikes inside Syria for the first time, along with expanded strikes in Iraq as part of ‘a steady, relentless effort’ to root out ISIS terrorists and stop them from spreading their reign of terror.
‘I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are,’ Obama said. ‘That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq.
‘This is a core principle of my presidency: if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.’
Obama did not say when U.S. forces would begin striking targets inside Syria.
‘In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its people,’ he said before claiming it ‘will never regain the legitimacy it has lost.’
Assad’s government offered this summer to help the Americans counter ISIS, a proposal that Washington quickly rebuffed.
Instead, Obama said the U.S. would work with the Syrian opposition to take on Islamic radicals.
The president said he was asking Congress to give his administration ‘additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters.’
He did not specify what actions he needed Congress to take in order to carry out his strategy.
But several lawmakers said they received calls from the president or vice president on Wednesday afternoon asking them to wait to pass a budget resolution that will keep the government running until he could lay out his plans.
White House insiders say the administration will ask for $500 million in funding for the ‘train-and-equip’ mission – which could be just as damaging to Assad as it would be to ISIS.
After giving a brief outline of his plans Wednesday night, Obama said the U.S. had ‘a broad coalition of partners’ it would be working with to defeat ISIS.
Already, Saudi Arabia has volunteered to host a training camp for the Syrian rebels. Obama administration officials made the announcement on Wednesday after the president spoke to Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud by phone.
Secretary of State John Kerry firmed up the details of the camp while meeting with the Saudi and Bahraini foreign ministers and bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud today in Saudi Arabia.
Responding to Obama’s plans for a ‘broad’ coalition of international actors, Sharif Shehadeh, a Syrian lawmaker, said today: ‘I wonder how an international coalition can be formed and Syria, which is targeted by terrorism in depth, is shunned aside?’
Without elaborating, he said violating Syrian sovereignty will have ‘negative repercussions on regional and international security’.
In Tehran, foreign ministry spokesman Marzieh Afkham said the coalition against the Islamic State has ‘serious ambiguities,’ the official IRNA news agency reported.
Afkham added that Iran has doubts about the seriousness of the coalition because some members have been supporters of terrorists in Iraq and Syria.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, whose country is a staunch ally of Assad, also said that regional and international cooperation will be vital — even though Tehran has not been invited to join an international coalition against the Islamic State group.
Rouhani spoke on an official visit to Tajikistan.
Asked about the role that Iran could play at a briefing today, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest again ruled out coordinating military operations with the country.
What Iran can do, he said, is provide political support for a new government in Iraq.
‘We would hope that Iran would be generally supportive of the kind of inclusive government in Iraq that is necessary’ to defeat ISIS, Earnest said.
Meanwhile, Syria’s main Western-backed opposition group welcomed President Barack Obama’s announcement, saying it stands ‘ready and willing’ to partner with the international community to defeat the militants.
But the Syrian National Coalition said that airstrikes need to be coupled with a strategy for ultimately toppling Assad.
Kurdish politicians in Iraq similarly praised Obama’s announcement of wider airstrikes and assistance to Iraqi forces.
Hoshyar Zebari, one of Iraq’s newly-appointed deputy prime ministers, said: ‘We welcome this new strategy. We think it will work with the cooperation of the indigenous local forces like Iraqi Security Forces, the Kurdish peshmerga and other forces.
‘There is an urgent need for action. People cannot sit on the fence. This is a mortal threat to everybody.’
The U.S. began launching limited airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq earlier this summer at the request of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – a significant boost to the Iraqi forces fighting on the ground to win back land lost to the militant group.
The Sunni extremists have seized roughly a third of Iraq and Syria in their rampage this summer, declaring a self-styled caliphate in areas under their control where they apply their strict interpretation of Islamic law, Shariah.
Syrian officials have always insisted that the uprising in Syria which erupted in March 2011 and evolved into civil war was carried out by armed ‘terrorists’ — using the term as shorthand for all rebels and anti-Assad forces.
A year ago, Obama gave a speech to the nation in which he was widely expected to announce the U.S. would be launching punishing airstrikes against Assad’s forces, after blaming them for a deadly chemical weapons attack near Damascus. Obama backed down at the last minute.
Ironically, the U.S. president is now authorizing airstrikes not against Assad, but against a group committed to his removal from power.
In doing that, the U.S. runs the risk of unintentionally strengthening Assad’s hand, potentially opening the way for the Syrian army to fill the vacuum left by the extremists.
Hadi Bahra, chief of the Syrian National Coalition opposition group, said mainstream Syrian rebels desperately need the kind of support that would enable it to form a reliable and well-equipped force to fight the extremists.
‘Today, we are one step closer to achieving that goal,’ he said.
The Syrian Coalition ‘stands ready and willing to partner with the international community’ not only to defeat the extremists but also ‘to rid the Syrian people of the tyranny of the Assad regime.’