Rus­sia launches new strikes against foes of Syria’s As­sad

The China Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY MAYA GE­BEILY WITH MARIA ANTONOVA

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.”

‘Ul­ti­ma­tums un­re­al­is­tic’

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.

AP

(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.

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