When Russia started bombing extremists in Syria last month, news and intelligence reports suggested its missiles were not trained on the Islamic State—the threat it said it was going after—but instead on rebels fighting against the Assad government, Moscow’s longtime ally.
But that was before a plane fell out of the sky, and civilians were shot and blown up in Paris and Beirut.
After days of hedging, Moscow on Tuesday confirmed that Metrojet Flight 9268 was brought down over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula by an“improvised explosive device,” which detonated soon after takeoff and tore the aircraft apart in midair. In remarks that were televised nationwide, President Vladimir Putin set the tone of his country’s air campaign in Syria moving forward.
“We should pursue them without any statute of limitations and should know all of them by name,” Putin said of the perpetrators of the plane crash. “We will be looking for them wherever they would try to hide. We will find them in any part of the world and punish them.”
The Russian investigation into the crash did not place blame on the Islamic State, whose Sinai branch has claimed responsibility. But on Tuesday, Moscow sharply intensified its air strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria.
“A massive airstrike is targeting ISIL sites in Syrian territory,” Russian Defense Minsiter Sergei Shoigu said, using one of the acronyms for the Islamic State. “The number of sorties has been doubled, which makes it possible to deliver powerful pinpoint strikes upon ISIL fighters all throughout the Syrian territory.”
A U.S. Defense Department official told The New York Times the Russian government warned the U.S. it would be carrying out “a significant number of strikes in Raqqa,” the Islamic State’s stronghold in Syria, before the first strikes launched. Putin has ordered Russian naval forces to work with French warships “as allies” in attacking the terrorist organization.
For weeks, Western nations watched with skepticism as Russian strikes targeted areas significantly west of Islamic State strongholds in Syria. As the Institute for the Study of War reported in early October:
The Russian Defense Ministry claimed that the airstrikes targeted eight Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) positions in total. The Syrian regime also released statements confirming Russian airstrikes in Homs and Hama, claiming that the airstrikes targeted both ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliated militants, likely referring to Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. However, local Syrian sources claim the airstrikes exclusively targeted rebel positions, including the headquarters of Free Syrian Army-affiliated, Western-backed TOW anti-tank missile recipient al-Izza Gathering in the town of Al Latamneh, rather than ISIS-held positions.
On Tuesday, Putin vowed payback for extremists over the deaths of the 224 people aboard the downed jetliner.
“Our air force’s military work in Syria must not simply be continued,” he said. “It must be intensified in such a way that the criminals understand that retribution is inevitable.”