Rus­sia re­jects Western crit­i­cism of Syria strikes

The China Post - - INTERNATIONAL - BY MARIA ANTONOVA

Rus­sia on Thurs­day re­jected ac­cu­sa­tions its air strikes in Syria tar­geted mod­er­ate rebels fight­ing Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad in­stead of Is­lamic State mil­i­tants, as it pre­pared for ur­gent mil­i­tary talks with the United States to head off pos­si­ble clashes.

Se­nior U.S. of­fi­cials had ex­pressed alarm af­ter Rus­sian war­planes be­gan their first mil­i­tary en­gage­ment out­side the for­mer Soviet Union since the oc­cu­pa­tion of Afghanistan in 1979.

For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei Lavrov chal­lenged the United States to pro­vide proof that Rus­sia’s op­er­a­tion was not tar­get­ing “ter­ror­ists” and dis­missed ac­cu­sa­tions by the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion that it had caused civil­ian deaths.

U.S. of­fi­cials had ac­cused Moscow of in­flam­ing the four-year war in Syria and ex­pressed doubt that Rus­sia — a close ally of As­sad — 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 with U.S. for­eign min­is­ter John Kerry.

“They (the Amer­i­can side) ex­pressed doubt, ar­gu­ing that there is ev­i­dence, which we asked them to show us, be­cause we stand by our tar­gets,” he said, in the com­ments re­leased by the for­eign min­istry in Moscow.

“Talk be­gan that civil­ians were hurt by air strikes. We have no such data,” he added. “We care­fully make sure that these tar­geted strikes are pre­cise.”

The head of Syria’s main op- po­si­tion group ac­cused Moscow of killing 36 civil­ians in the cen­tral province of Homs, while U.S. of­fi­cials said it ap­peared the strikes were not in IS-con­trolled ter­ri­tory.

The de­fense min­istry in Moscow said for its part that Rus­sian fighter jets car­ried out 20 sor­ties and struck “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 seemed to put a brave face on the dis­pute and 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.

‘What is Free Syr­ian Army?’

Rus­sian sen­a­tors on Wed­nes­day voted be­hind closed doors to unan­i­mously ap­prove in­ter­ven­tion in Syria af­ter Krem­lin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov said As­sad needed Moscow’s help in fight­ing ter­ror­ists.

The de­ci­sion fol­lowed weeks of mil­i­tary buildup by Rus­sia in Syr­ian gov­ern­ment-con­trolled ter­ri­tory.

It re­mained un­clear how much of the op­po­si­tion fight­ing As­sad’s army — in­clud­ing the mod­er­ate op­po­si­tion sup­ported by the West — is con­sid­ered by Moscow as a po­ten­tial tar­get.

Speak­ing to Rus­sian news agen­cies late Wed­nes­day, Presi- dent Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Moscow was help­ing Syria to fight IS group and “other ter­ror­ist and ex­trem­ist groups.”

When asked whether 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? Are they of­fi­cial forces? 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 that the Rus­sian 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.

‘Ul­ti­ma­tums un­re­al­is­tic’

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 never con­demned As­sad for civil­ian deaths 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 media has been por­tray­ing the As­sad regime as the only force hero­ically stop­ping the spread of the bru­tal Is­lamic State group, there­fore re­quir­ing Rus­sian help.

The Ros­siya

state

tele­vi­sion chan­nel said Thurs­day that 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 re- port 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

Rus­sia’s For­eign Min­is­ter Sergey Lavrov, left, speaks dur­ing a news con­fer­ence next to his U.S. coun­ter­part John Kerry at the U.N., Wed­nes­day, Sept. 30.

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