Only one in 20 Russian air strikes in Syria have targetted Islamic State (IS) fighters, Britain’s Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said Saturday.

British intelligence services observed that five percent of the strikes had attacked the militant jihadist group, with most “killing civilians” and Free Syrian forces fighting against the regime of president Bashar al-Assad, Fallon told the Sun newspaper…

“Our evidence indicates they are dropping unguided munitions in civilian areas, killing civilians, and they are dropping them against the Free Syrian forces fighting Assad.

“He’s shoring up Assad and perpetuating the suffering.”

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U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron added his voice on Saturday to criticism of Russia’s military action in Syria, as Russian warplanes continued to carry out airstrikes in the war-torn country.

Mr. Cameron accused Russia of indiscriminately targeting members of the opposition fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as well as Islamic State militants.

“It’s absolutely clear that Russia is not discriminating between ISIL and the legitimate Syrian opposition groups,” he told the British Broadcasting Corp., referring to Islamic State by a different name. “As a result they are actually backing the butcher Assad and helping him.”

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Already out-gunned and out-manned in Syria’s civil war, U.S.-backed rebels are facing a new and possibly even more serious threat to their survival: Russian air strikes that Washington appears reluctant to thwart.

The Obama administration – blindsided by the speed of Moscow’s direct intervention and a Russian target list that included CIA-trained fighters – made clear on Thursday that the it had no desire to increase the risk of an air clash between the former Cold War foes.

While Washington took pains to insist it still considered the “moderate” opposition vital to Syria’s future and was not abandoning them, withholding U.S. air cover could further jeopardize beleaguered rebel forces.

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Raed Fares, one of Syria’s best-known activists, doesn’t think his U.S. connections will offer him any protection from the Russian airstrikes now pounding opposition-held territory across the country. In fact, he thinks the U.S. ties may even put a target on his back. “To be honest,” he told BuzzFeed News by Skype, “I’m afraid.”…

Russia has claimed that its strikes are focused on ISIS. But they have so far centered instead on other rebel groups fighting Assad, a longtime Russian ally. That has included even rebels backed by the U.S. government. In interviews with BuzzFeed News, several Syrians who have received U.S. support, civilian and military alike, said that they feared suffering a similar fate. “They don’t care if the U.S. supports us,” Jamil al-Saleh, the head of the U.S.-backed rebel battalion Tammaju al-Aaza, told BuzzFeed News on Tuesday, after his group was targeted in the first wave of Russian strikes…

Hassan Hamada, who said his Division 101 Battalion likewise had received U.S. support, said he and other rebel commanders were caught off guard by the Russian strikes. “We were surprised because they attacked groups that get support from the U.S., but now we realized that they are fighting the U.S. through us. They sent a message to the U.S. that says that we will protect Assad, even if you don’t accept it.”

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Indeed, Russia’s airstrikes against CIA-vetted Syrian rebels last week looked like a punctuation mark. When the secretary of state holds a joint press conference with Moscow’s foreign minister after Russia has decimated American proxies bearing American arms, we are not witnessing anything like a return to the Cold War. Rather, we’re witnessing a new order being born. It is an order that is being designed by others, without any concern for American interests

“There already is a third world war underway,” says Angelo Codevilla, professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University. “It’s the war between Sunnis and Shiites. It’s a world war because it engages people all around the world who happen to be Muslims.”…

To stem the refugee crisis, the White House is broadly hinting it is willing to go along with Tehran and Moscow and let Assad stay in power, at least for now. But it is Assad and his allies—not, as the administration seems to suggest, the Islamic State—who are responsible for the vast majority of the refugees. If the Obama administration accommodates Russia and Iran on Assad, it will be acquiescing in a plot to extort and destabilize Europe.

In the Gulf, Mead says, “if the Sunnis continue to feel that they’re losing an existential conflict with Iran, they may move toward a closer relationship between governments and radical groups. Keeping oil money out of the hands of truly radical jihadists has been a core U.S. interest since September 11, but if the Gulf states don’t feel we are keeping our part of the bargain by providing security, they could take matters into their own hands.”

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Obama’s been in “rhymes-with-bucket-list” mode for months, riding high from a spring where all of a sudden his presidency seemed to come together, embracing poll numbers that he and the West Wing assumed were never going to go up, and watching with glee as he’s outlasted people who’ve made his life hell (not a lot of weeping in the Oval Office about John Boehner’s tail-between-his-legs resignation)…

His administration’s history in Syria is such a jumbled mess of false starts and assumptions proved wrong that he spent half an hour in response to the first question asked, and managed to say nothing new. But, hey, he said, that’s a lot better than what anyone else has got.

“When I hear people offering up half-baked ideas as if they are solutions, or trying to downplay the challenges involved in the situation, what I’d like to see people ask is, ‘Specifically, precisely, what exactly would you do and how would you fund it and how would you sustain it?’” Obama said. “Typically what you get is a bunch of mumbo jumbo.”

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The fact is that Russia doesn’t really want the Islamic State to go away, at least not at first. Its existence is necessary to justify Putin’s intervention in Syria, and to justify the intervention of his allies, the Iranians, in Iraq. And Russia has long history, from back in the Cold War, of stoking anti-Americanism in the Muslim world as a way of keeping America pinned down. So why focus first on getting rid of a faction whose main enemies are in the West?

All of this fits with Russia’s broader interest, which is about building influence far beyond Syria. The message of this intervention is to show that America is dithering and uninterested and won’t act to tip the balance of any conflict or contest. But Russia will. So if you’re considering who should be your ally, the Russians are a better bet. Like I said, we’re back to playing by the old Cold War rules. And we’re losing.

This debacle is about more than just the administration’s indecisiveness or incompetence. President Obama was brought up, literally at his mother’s knee, with tales about American intervention and imperialism as the cause of all problems in the world, which will be solved if we stop being such bullies and disengage. As an anti-Vietnam War protester, John Kerry made that worldview the foundation of his political career. So the dismantling of America’s global influence is an ideological goal of this administration.

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Both Kunduz and Russia’s bombing are symptoms of the same phenomenon: the vacuum created by Barack Obama’s attempt to stand back from the wars of the Muslim world. America’s president told the UN General Assembly this week that his country had learned it “cannot by itself impose stability on a foreign land”; others, Iran and Russia included, should help in Syria. Mr Obama is not entirely wrong. But his proposition hides many dangers: that America throws up its hands; that regional powers, sensing American disengagement, will be sucked into a free-for-all; and that Russia’s intervention will make a bloody war bloodier still. Unless Mr Obama changes course, expect more deaths, refugees and extremism…

As a judoka, Mr Putin knows the art of exploiting an opponent’s weakness: when America steps back, he pushes forward. Yet being an opportunist does not equip him to fix Syria. And the more he tries to save Mr Assad the more damage he will cause in Syria and the region—and the greater the risk that his moment of bravado will turn to hubris. Given the enduring strength of America, there is much that it can still do to contain the spreading disorder—if only Mr Obama had a bit more of Mr Putin’s taste for daring.

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Behind the scenes, Obama administration officials have been telling the Russians and the Iranians for over a year that the U.S. would not object to an expanded security role for them inside Syria, multiple officials told me. The U.S. was willing to accept that in exchange for Russian and Iranian helping to move Assad out of power.

“The idea was that Assad would step aside and the Russians and Iranians would play a greater role, and the U.S. would say that’s inside the framework of the Geneva communiqué,” said Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But they grabbed what we were offering and didn’t give us what we wanted, and then we were surprised.”

“The current policy of the United States and its partners, to increase pressure on Assad so that he ‘comes to the table’ and negotiates his own departure — must be rethought,” Philip Gordon, the former White House coordinator for the Middle East, wrote this week. “It is fanciful to imagine limited airstrikes, arms to the opposition, or the establishment of a no-fly-zone would lead Assad to behave differently from Saddam, Milosevic or Gaddafi.”

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Consider: When Obama became president, the surge in Iraq had succeeded and the United States had emerged as the dominant regional actor, able to project power throughout the region. Last Sunday, Iraq announced the establishment of a joint intelligence-gathering center with Iran, Syria and Russia, symbolizing the new “Shiite-crescent” alliance stretching from Iran across the northern Middle East to the Mediterranean, under the umbrella of Russia, the rising regional hegemon.

Russian planes roam free over Syria attacking Assad’s opposition as we stand by helpless. Meanwhile, the U.S. secretary of state beseeches the Russians to negotiate “de-conflict” arrangements — so that we and they can each bomb our own targets safely. It has come to this.

Why is Putin moving so quickly and so brazenly? Because he’s got only 16 more months to push on the open door that is Obama. He knows he’ll never again see an American president such as this — one who once told the General Assembly that “no one nation can or should try to dominate another nation” and told it again Monday of “believing in my core that we, the nations of the world, cannot return to the old ways of conflict and coercion.”…

Wouldn’t you take advantage of these last 16 months if you were Putin, facing a man living in a faculty-lounge fantasy world? Where was Obama when Putin began bombing Syria? Leading a U.N. meeting on countering violent extremism.

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And so, Obama has been forced to join an alliance of powers—Iran, Russia, and (take a deep breath) Assad—that always seemed to have the most potential, because their interests in fighting ISIS were most vital and least ambivalent. Alliances are rarely purebreds. Had Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill resisted allying with Joseph Stalin to fight Adolf Hitler, on the grounds that Soviet Communism was hardly less evil than Nazism, then they would have lost World War II while standing on their moral dudgeon. The war against ISIS isn’t nearly as titanic, but the principle is the same: Sometimes the world presents you with terrible choices, and you have to go with the least terrible—at least for the moment…

In recent days, some regional leaders—who, a few weeks ago, would have scoffed at the notion of a coalition with Iran or an anti-ISIS strategy that condoned Assad’s continued rule in Syria, even as a temporary measure—suddenly bowed to the reality of both. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said as much on Thursday. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi accepted the idea in an interview on Monday with CNN.

For those leaders to make such drastic turnarounds indicates only that everyone now realizes that the situation is desperate, that serious powers must take serious action, and that the only truly serious action—at least in the realm of arms and diplomacy—is the one that they saw, not long ago, as too stomach-turning to consider. In the choice between nausea and catastrophe, it’s wise to live with the nausea.

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Russian intervention in Syria is about more than propping up Assad. Russian leadership of a pro-Assad coalition that includes Iran and Iraq effectively displaces America as the most influential external power in the region. Russian provocations have forced Washington to plead for “de-confliction,” handing Moscow freedom of action over Syrian, and possibly Iraqi, airspace. And the location of the Russian base opens an additional front in Putin’s war against NATO

Try this scenario: Sometime in the next 16 months, civil unrest breaks out in one or more of the Baltic States. It’s the Russian population, calling for “independence” from the central government and closer ties to Moscow. Fighting erupts as Russian tanks mass along the border and jets fly over Riga or Vilnius or Tallinn. They are all targets. Take Vilnius: While there are few ethnic Russians in Lithuania, it is the land bridge between Mother Russia and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Supplying Kaliningrad would be Putin’s casus belli.

The Baltic authorities call on NATO to respond—invoking Article Four of the charter, which requires consultations, and possibly Article Five, requiring force. But the West is distracted. Europe is overwhelmed by crises in Greece and Ukraine, by the U.K. referendum to leave the E.U., by ongoing Muslim migration to the north. The United States is occupied by its presidential election, by Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan, by economic shocks.

The cries for assistance go unheard. The Obama administration has refused even to try to secure permanent forward bases in the Baltics—which would provide a credible deterrent—apparently due to the belief that providing for a real defense is “provocative.” We are too busy, too self-absorbed, too confused to worry about promises made years ago. Obama won’t arm the Ukrainians. What makes us think he’d defend the Lithuanians or Latvians or Estonians?

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Since the planned conquest of “Novorossiya” doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, Putin needs a new crisis. It’s no secret that Russia has been supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad from the beginning of Syria’s civil war, and now it seems Moscow is stepping up its military presence there…

Already there are reports of Russia sending fewer soldiers and more bureaucrats to the Donbas in order to concentrate on administration. However, what’s likely to happen is that Putin will be stuck with two wars instead of one. Unfortunately for him, he can’t really pull out of Ukraine without losing face, and that could have dire consequences for his legitimacy.

In an excellent article, Russia scholar Karen Dawisha points to signs of a rift within the Putin kleptocracy. For Russia’s elites, the main concern is staying in power, otherwise they risk losing everything.

Starting wars is fine as long as it diverts people’s attention from the corruption at home. But reports of Russian soldiers saying they “don’t want to die in Syria” have already circulated in Russian media, so this new crisis has many risks.

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Let’s say the U.S. did nothing right now, and just let Putin start bombing ISIS and bolstering Assad. How long before every Sunni Muslim in the Middle East, not to mention every jihadist, has Putin’s picture in a bull’s eye on his cellphone?…

Putin stupidly went into Syria looking for a cheap sugar high to show his people that Russia is still a world power. Well, now he’s up a tree. Obama and John Kerry should just leave him up there for a month — him and Assad, fighting ISIS alone — and watch him become public enemy No. 1 in the Sunni Muslim world. “Yo, Vladimir, how’s that working for you?”

The only way Putin can get down from that tree is with our help in forging a political solution in Syria. And that only happens if the Russians and the Iranians force Assad — after a transition — to step down and leave the country, in return for the opposition agreeing to protect the basic safety and interests of Assad’s Alawite community, and both sides welcoming an international force on the ground to guarantee the deal…

I think Putin’s rash rush into Syria may in the end make him more in need of a deal, or at least a lasting cease-fire, that stops the refugee flows. If we can do that, for now, we will have done a lot.

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For a long time, the U.S. has been the dominant military power in the region. What has been so great about that? Instead of making us safer, our role has given us more enemies. If Putin wants to invite jihadists to turn their attention from attacking America to attacking Russia, more power to him.

We got involved in the region mainly to assure access to Persian Gulf oil. That imperative is less urgent than before, since we are producing more oil at home and consuming less. In any case, the U.S. is not about to leave and let the chips fall where they may. Our power has rested mainly on our navy, whose continued presence and supremacy are not in doubt.

Plenty of countries in the region will lean toward us regardless of what Putin does — including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Israel. Others will be uncooperative regardless, notably Iran. Russia’s venture isn’t likely to make much difference either way.

Obama’s critics portray him as weak and lost in the face of the bold Russian challenge. But the truth is he’s engaged in geopolitical jujitsu, using the opponent’s strengths against him. He’s avoiding risks that carry no commensurate rewards.

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And yet, it’s possible to read these events in a very different way — one that vindicates Obama’s general approach to foreign policy and even views Russia’s recent moves in a positive, or at least ambiguous, light. Rather than a tale of America choosing to embrace decline, this alternative story is one in which the U.S., after a period of foolish overreaching, comes to terms with reality — above all with the very real limits of its knowledge and power…

There is no realistic path to a just peace in Syria. There is only a need for peace. For order. For an end to the killing.

If our moral scruples and democratic commitments prevent us from propping up the dictator in Damascus, maybe we should be grateful that Putin is willing to do the dirty work for us.

That’s not a humiliation. It’s a favor.

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