Moscow de­clares par­tial vic­tory in Syria and says it will in­ten­sify airstrikes

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY AN­DREW ROTH AND LIZ SLY an­drew.roth@wash­ liz.sly@wash­ Sly re­ported from Beirut. Thomas Gib­bons-Neff in Washington con­trib­uted to this re­port.

MOSCOW — Rus­sian mil­i­tary of­fi­cials de­clared par­tial vic­tory Satur­day in their four-day-old bomb­ing cam­paign in Syria and said they would in­ten­sify airstrikes against rebel groups de­spite U.S. crit­i­cism.

Of­fi­cials in Washington said Rus­sia was step­ping up its mil­i­tary sup­port to the gov­ern­ment of Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad, send­ing at least two mul­ti­ple­rocket launcher sys­tems through the Rus­sian naval base at Tar­tus on Syria’s coast. Such sys­tems can blan­ket a large area with mu­ni­tions.

Rus­sian air­craft based in Syria had car­ried out 20 sor­ties in 24 hours and de­stroyed nine tar­gets, the Rus­sian De­fense Min­istry said in a state­ment Satur­day morn­ing. They in­cluded strikes near the city of Raqqa, which is con­trolled by the Is­lamic State, and in the prov­inces of Idlib and Hama, which are not.

Ac­tivists and hu­man rights groups said the strikes con­tin­ued for a fourth con­sec­u­tive day, with the at­tacks ex­tend­ing into north­ern Latakia province, near the ex­panded air base from which the Rus­sian air force is op­er­at­ing.

One vil­lage, Ih­sem, in the Ja­bal al-Zawiya moun­tain area of Idlib, was hit by five suc­ces­sive raids, and a res­cue worker be­long­ing to the Western-funded White Hel­mets res­cue ser­vice was killed. The vil­lage was seized from mod­er­ate rebels by al-Qaeda af­fil­i­ate Jab­hat al-Nusra last year and is nowun­der the con­trol of the Army of Con­quest, or Jaish al-Fatah, a coali­tion of Is­lamist and rebel groups.

The Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights, an ac­tivist and mon­i­tor­ing group based in Bri­tain, said Rus­sian airstrikes had killed 39 civil­ians in the pre­vi­ous four days. Rus­sia has said that all its strikes have tar­geted the Is­lamic State, but most of the raids have taken place in ar­eas from which the ex­trem­ist group was ejected more than a year and a half ago and that are now con­trolled by a mix of Western-backed mod­er­ate rebels, Is­lamists and al-Qaeda-linked fight­ers op­posed to the As­sad regime.

Ac­cord­ing to Western of­fi­cials and footage of Rus­sian airstrikes, some Rus­sian air­craft are us­ing un­guided mu­ni­tions, “dumb bombs,” which are more likely to miss their tar­gets and cause col­lat­eral dam­age.

Gen. An­drei Kar­tapolov on Satur­day de­clared that four days of Rus­sian airstrikes had “sig­nif­i­cantly de­creased the fight­ing po­ten­tial” of the Is­lamic State. “There is panic and de­ser­tion in their ranks,” Kar­tapolov told jour­nal­ists. “More than 600 mer­ce­nar­ies have left their po­si­tions and are try­ing to get to Europe.”

The state­ment could not be con­firmed, but the strikes ap­peared to have hard­ened re­sis­tance among gov­ern­ment op­po­nents to a U.N. ini­tia­tive aimed at ex­plor­ing po­ten­tial so­lu­tions to the war.

In a rare dis­play of unity, the Syr­ian Op­po­si­tion Coali­tion and dozens of armed groups span­ning a spec­trum of views from rad­i­cal Is­lamist to mod­er­ate is­sued a state­ment say­ing they would not at­tend a se­ries of “work­ing groups” the United Na­tions hopes to con­vene this fall to dis­cuss the pos­si­bil­ity of ne­go­ti­a­tions.

Cit­ing “the cur­rent pop­u­lar out­rage” against the lack of world re­sponse to Rus­sian as well as Ira­nian in­ter­ven­tion in Syria, the state­ment said any po­lit­i­cal process should ex­plic­itly de­clare that there is no fu­ture role for As­sad.

The state­ment was signed by the Salafist-ji­hadist Ahrar al-Sham group as well as some of the rebel units that have re­ceived train­ing and weapons from the United States and its al­lies.

Syria’s gov­ern­ment has said it will at­tend the talks, but For­eign Min­is­ter Walid al-Moualem said Fri­day that Damascus will not coun­te­nance any re­forms to the gov­ern­ment or the con­sti­tu­tion un­til af­ter the war against “ter­ror­ism” is won. Speak­ing at the United Na­tions in New York, he warned As­sad’s op­po­nents not to ex­pect to “achieve at the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble what they failed to achieve on the ground,” ac­cord­ing to the As­so­ci­ated Press.

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