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Russia Launches Air Strikes In Syria As Western Officials Doubt Goals

September 30, 2015

In a bold escalation of its involvement in Syria, Russia has launched air strikes in the war-torn country that it says targeted Islamic State (IS) militants, while Western officials suggested the offensive may be aimed at other opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said on September 30 that Russian warplanes were carrying out targeted strikes on the positions, vehicles, and warehouses that Russia believes belong to IS militants.

Syrian state television named at least seven areas targeted by Russian air strikes, including in Homs Province and Hama Province, north of Homs.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on September 30 in Moscow that the only way to fight terrorists in Syria was to act preemptively. Russia's operations would be limited to air strikes, he said, repeating assurances that ground forces would not be involved.

The military intervention, Moscow's first outside the former Soviet Union since its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, drew a rebuke from the United States, which suspects Russia is seeking to bolster Assad under the guise of combating terrorism.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington would welcome Russia's 'genuine commitment to defeat' IS forces but that 'we must not and will not be confused in our fight against [IS] with support for Assad.'

'We have also made clear we would have grave concerns should Russia should strike areas where [IS] and Al-Qaeda-affiliated targets are not operating,' Kerry told a United Nations Security Council meeting just hours after Russian jets began hitting targets in Syria.

'Strikes of that kind would question Russia's real intentions: fighting [IS], or protecting the Assad regime,' Kerry added.

A U.S. official told Reuters on condition of anonymity that the Russian strikes did not appear to be targeting areas under the control of IS forces and might extend beyond the vicinity of Homs to other areas.

Hitting Moderates?

Some Western analysts say the area around Homs is not held by IS militants.

Thomas Pierret of the University of Edinburgh told RFE/RL the 'northern Homs countryside is home to various factions from the Free Syrian Army to Jabhat al-Nusra. For sure, there is no Islamic State there and, overall, the [groups there] are rather moderate.'

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, meanwhile, told reporters at the United Nations in New York that there 'were indications that the Russian strikes did not target Daesh,' using an alternate name for the IS group.

Any air strikes must target IS forces and other 'terrorist groups, not civilians or the moderate opposition,' Fabius said.

Khaled Khoja, the head of the Western-backed Syrian political opposition, wrote on Twitter that at least 36 civilians were killed in the Russian bombing raids, which he said targeted areas where IS and Al-Qaeda-linked forces are not present.

Khoja, head of the Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition, is currently in New York for the UN General Assembly. 'The targeted areas in today's Russian air raid in Homs were those areas which fought [IS forces] and defeated it a year ago,' Khoja added.

A U.S.-backed Syrian rebel group known as Tajamu Alezzah wrote on Twitter that its positions in the central city of Latamna in the province of Hama were hit in the air strikes, though it did not immediately provide details.

Assad's forces also purportedly carried out air strikes as well. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 27 civilians were killed and dozens of others wounded on September 30 in Homs Province in raids by Syrian jets.

Russia's 'Holy War'

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters at the United Nations that the West and Syrian opposition were distorting the facts by suggesting that the Russia jets hit targets other than IS militants.

Russia has for weeks been building up its military presence in Syria, where it has supported Assad in the more-than-four-year-long civil war. Government forces are fighting against IS militants, other Islamic extremists, and rebel groups that in some cases are Western-backed.

The United States and other Western governments suspect Russia's targets could include Western-backed rebels opposing Assad, whom Washington accuses of committing atrocities against his own people.

The United States has insisted that Assad cannot be part of a postwar government in Syria, a position Russia has vehemently opposed.

The attacks came after Russia's upper house of parliament voted unanimously to authorize Putin to use the military in Syria -- a requirement under Russian law and part of a campaign by Moscow to show that its involvement in Syria is legal and justified.

Lavrov told the UN Security Council on September 30 that Moscow was prepared to open 'standing channels of communication' with the U.S.-led coalition bombing IS militants in Syria.

'We have informed the authorities of the United States and other members of the coalition created by the Americans and are ready to forge standing channels of communication to ensure the maximum effective fight against the terrorist groups,' Lavrov said.

The Kremlin-allied Russian Orthodox Church signaled strong support for the air strikes, with a senior church official saying the battle against terrorism was a 'holy fight.'

A U.S. official told Reuters on condition of anonymity that Moscow gave the United States just one hour of advance notice of its operations.

And U.S. State Department spokesperson John Kirby told reporters that a Russian official in Baghdad requested U.S. aircraft avoid Syrian airspace during the missions.

But Kirby said that 'the U.S.-led coalition will continue to fly missions over Iraq and Syria as planned,' rejecting any Russian effort to limit coalition activities.

Reuters quoted an unidentified U.S. official as saying that the United States carried out an air strike on September 30 against IS targets in the vicinity of the Syrian city of Aleppo.

Putin's chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, said the objective of the parliament vote was to authorize the use of the Russian Air Force alone and that 'the use of armed forces in a ground operation is ruled out.'

Ivanov said the 'most important' driver in the decision to step up Russia's involvement was the thousands of Russians and citizens of other ex-Soviet states joining the militants in Syria and Iraq and the security threat they might pose when they returned home.

He also said the vote followed a request by Assad for military assistance in fighting IS.

The Syrian presidency confirmed on September 30 that it had asked for Russian military assistance.

Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama clashed over Syria in speeches at the United Nations on September 28, with Obama saying that Washington was willing to work with Russia to bring an end to the conflict but that any resolution to the war must include a 'managed transition' away from Assad.

Putin called it 'an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate' with Assad's government to combat IS militants, who have captured large parts of both Syria and Iraq.

A U.S.-led coalition has already been bombing IS in Iraq and Syria, but Russia has been highly critical of the campaign, saying it has only yielded meager results so far.

The coalition conducted 26 air strikes against IS in Iraq on September 29, as well as four air strikes on the militant group in Syria.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and CNN

Source: http://www.rferl.org/content/russia-syria-air-strikes/27279381.html

Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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