Russia launches new strikes against foes of Syria’s Assad
Russian warplanes unleashed a new wave of strikes against opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad Thursday, as Moscow and Washington prepared for urgent talks to avoid clashes between their forces.
It was the second straight day of Russian raids in Syria, where Moscow on Wednesday launched its first military engagement outside the former Soviet Union since the occupation of Afghanistan in 1979.
Russia, a key backer of Assad, said the latest strikes had hit four targets linked to the Islamic State jihadist group, which controls large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq.
But a Syrian security source said they had targeted a powerful coalition of Islamist rebels which includes al-Qaida’s Syria affiliate and which is fiercely opposed to IS.
“Air strikes from four Russian warplanes struck bases held by the Army of Conquest in Jisr alShughur and Jabal al-Zawiya in Idlib province,” the source said, adding that arms depots held by “armed groups” in neighboring Hama province were also targeted.
A member of the Army of Conquest, which controls Idlib province and has advanced west towards Assad’s coastal heartland of Latakia, said on Twitter that “Russian pigs” had flattened a mosque in Jisr al-Shughur.
In Moscow, the defense ministry said it had bombed “four Islamic State targets” in Syria overnight, destroying “the headquarters of terrorist groups and a weapons warehouse in Idlib area and a command center ... in Hama region.” A car bomb factory north of Homs was also destroyed, it said.
On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov brushed off doubts by U. S. officials that Russia was attacking IS targets.
“The rumors that the target of these air strikes was not IS positions are unfounded,” Lavrov told journalists in New York after meeting U. S. foreign minister John Kerry. He asked the U.S. to provide evidence “because we stand by our targets.”
The head of Syria’s main opposition group accused Moscow of killing 36 civilians in the central province of Homs on Wednesday.
President Vladimir Putin on Thursday dismissed claims that Russian air strikes had killed civilians in Syria as “information warfare” but said Moscow would look into those reports.
“When it comes to media reports regarding the suffering of the civilian population, we are ready for this information warfare,” he said. “Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that we should not heed information like this.”
U.S.-Russian Military Talks
Russia’s defense ministry said fighter jets had carried out 20 sorties on Wednesday, striking “eight Islamic State targets” including a command post in the mountains. Washington complained that Moscow gave only an hour’s notice of the strikes, but the two sides were preparing to hold military talks on the situation, perhaps as soon as Thursday.
“We agreed on the imperative of as soon as possible — perhaps even as soon as tomorrow, but as soon as possible — having a military to military de-confliction discussion,” Kerry said Wednesday, appearing with Lavrov on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
After weeks of Russian military build-up in Syria, Russian senators on Wednesday unanimously approved armed intervention after Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov said Assad needed Moscow’s help.
It remains unclear how much of the opposition fighting Assad’s army — including the Westernbacked moderate opposition — is considered by Moscow as a potential target.
Speaking to Russian news agencies late Wednesday, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow was helping Syria fight IS and “other terrorist and extremist groups.”
When asked whether the Free Syrian Army, the Western-backed moderate rebels fighting both Assad and IS, is on Moscow’s list of terrorist groups, Peskov said: “Does it exist, the Free Syria Army? Haven’t most of them switched to IS group?”
“What is the Free Syrian Army, is it an official term? ... It existed but whether it does now nobody knows for sure, it’s a relative concept.”
Russia’s Kommersant daily on Thursday quoted a military source as saying Moscow’s deployment includes Su- 24M and Su- 34 bombers, Su-30 fighter jets and Mi-24 combat helicopters, some of which flew in on Sept. 18 as a transport escort.
Six bombers reached Syria circumventing Azerbaijan and flying over the Caspian Sea, Iran and Iraq.
Russia and the West are in deep disagreement over Syria, with Moscow backing Assad while Western powers blame him for starting what has become a brutal war with more than 240,000 people dead and millions displaced.
France on Wednesday launched an inquiry into Assad for alleged “crimes against humanity” including kidnappings and torture.
Moscow however has portrayed Assad as the only force stopping the spread of IS and argues that he must be part of the political solution to the conflict.
“Life has shown that it is unrealistic to give ultimatums demanding that Assad leaves in a situation when the country is in such a crisis,” Lavrov said.
The Russian state television channel Rossiya said Thursday Syria’s military is “launching an offensive in northern Homs where over 5,000 militants are hiding.”
Russian pilots will help Syrian military pinpoint fortifications of “terrorists” and radicals, the report said, featuring combat footage from drones and images of Syrian soldiers shooting.
“Most of the moderate opposition rebels supported by Washington are switching to the side of the Islamists,” it said.
(Left) This image taken Wednesday, Sept. 30, posted on the Twitter account of Syria Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, a volunteer search and rescue group, shows the aftermath of an airstrike in Talbiseh, Syria. (Right) In this photo created from footage taken from the Russian Defense Ministry’s official website on Thursday, Oct. 1, a bomb explosion is seen in Syria.