Rus­sia strikes IS base amid es­ca­la­tion warn­ings

The China Post - - INTERNATIONAL - BY VA­LERIE LER­OUX WITH RANA MOUS­SAOUI

Rus­sia said Fri­day it had bombed the Is­lamic State strong­hold of Raqa for the first time as Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin faced mount­ing crit­i­cism from Western and Gulf lead­ers over his mil­i­tary cam­paign in sup­port of Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad.

Moscow coun­tered that it had hit “an IS train­ing camp” and a com­mand post in air strikes on Thurs­day near the ji­hadist bas­tion as the U.S.-led coali­tion urged Rus­sia to stop at­tack­ing Syr­ian op­po­si­tion forces, say­ing it risked es­ca­lat­ing the four-year civil war.

“These mil­i­tary ac­tions con­sti­tute a fur­ther es­ca­la­tion and will only fuel more ex­trem­ism and rad­i­cal­iza­tion,” seven coun­tries in­clud­ing Tur­key, Saudi Ara­bia and the United States said in a state­ment.

“We call on the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion to im­me­di­ately cease its at­tacks on the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion and civil­ians,” it added.

Rus­sian For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei Lavrov said Thurs­day Moscow had tar­geted IS, the al-Qaida af­fil­i­ate al-Nusra Front and “other ter­ror­ist groups.”

But Tur­key and sev­eral of its Western al­lies have claimed that they in­stead hit mod­er­ate groups fight­ing As­sad’s regime.

Rus­sia’s de­fence min­istry said its latest air strikes had put an “IS com­mand point out of ac­tion. The in­fra­struc­ture used to train ter­ror­ists was com­pletely de­stroyed,” the min­istry said.

The Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights, a mon­i­tor­ing group, said at least 12 IS ji­hadists from the Is­lamic State group were killed in the Raqa at­tack.

Putin held talks in Paris on Fri­day with the lead­ers of France and Ger­many, the first time he has met Western lead­ers since Rus­sia be­gan its dra­matic in­ter­ven­tion in the Syr­ian con­flict.

Western na­tions in­clud­ing France say they are pre­pared to dis­cuss a po­lit­i­cal so­lu­tion with el­e­ments of the Syr­ian regime, but in­sist As­sad must leave power.

Putin, on the other hand, says As­sad — Rus­sia’s long term ally — should stay.

As many as 250,000 peo­ple have been killed in the multi-sided con­flict, with four mil­lion more forced to flee the coun­try.

A French diplo­matic source said Putin and French Pres­i­dent Fran­cois Hol­lande had “tried to find com­mon ground on their opin­ions on the po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion.”

‘Four-month Rus­sian cam­paign’

Ahead of the talks, a Putin ally and se­nior law­maker said the cam­paign of Rus­sian air strikes will last for three to four months and will in­crease in in­ten­sity.

“There is al­ways a risk of get­ting bogged down but in Moscow they’re talk­ing about three to four months of oper­a­tions,” Alexei Pushkov, the head of the for­eign af­fairs com­mit­tee of Rus­sia’s lower house of par­lia­ment, told France’s Europe 1 ra­dio.

Pushkov said more than 2,500 air strikes by the U.S.-led coali­tion in Syria had failed to in­flict sig­nif­i­cant dam­age on IS, but Rus­sia’s cam­paign would be more in­ten­sive.

“I think it’s the in­ten­sity that is im­por­tant. The U.S.-led coali­tion has pre­tended to bomb Daesh (an Ara­bic acro­nym for Is­lamic State) for a year, with­out re­sults.

“If you do it in a more ef­fi­cient way, I think you’ll see re­sults,” he said.

Pushkov re­futed sug­ges­tions from Western na­tions that Rus­sian planes were mainly bomb­ing rebel groups op­posed to As­sad.

“The main tar­get are the Daesh groups si­t­u­ated clos­est to Damascus,” Pushkov in­sisted.

Rus­sia’s de­fence min­istry said its sec­ond day of bomb­ing had hit five IS tar­gets, in­clud­ing a com­mand post in north­west Idlib province.

But a Syr­ian se­cu­rity source said Thurs­day the strikes had tar­geted Is­lamist rebels that fiercely op­pose IS, and U.S.-backed rebel group Suqur al-Ja­bal said Rus­sian war­planes at­tacked its train­ing camp in Idlib.

‘It’s a ter­ror­ist, right?’

Lavrov in­sisted Moscow was tar­get­ing the same terror groups as the U.S.-led coali­tion, in­clud­ing IS and al-Qaida’s Syr­ian af­fil­i­ate the al-Nusra Front.

“If it acts like a ter­ror­ist, if it walks like a ter­ror­ist, if it fights like a ter­ror­ist, it’s a ter­ror­ist, right?” he said at the U.N. on Thurs­day.

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