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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Carter: Russian Airstrikes 'Pouring Gas on Fire' in Syria

by VOA News September 30, 2015

Russia's decision to begin airstrikes in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad's regime 'is tantamount to pouring gasoline on the fire' of the Middle East country's four-year civil war, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Wednesday.

In an afternoon news conference, the Pentagon chief reiterated that the United States would continue to lead coalition airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria, ignoring Russia's request for U.S. aircraft to avoid that airspace.

Russia began bombing attacks Wednesday in support of the Syrian government.

U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said a Russian general in Baghdad had given U.S. Embassy personnel short notice earlier in the morning of the planned strikes in Syria against Islamic State targets.

'The U.S.-led coalition will continue to fly missions over Iraq and Syria as planned and in support of our international mission to degrade and destroy ISIL,' Kirby said, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.

Carter on Tuesday had directed the Pentagon staff to communicate with Russia about coalition activity in Syria, to avoid any mistaken encounter between coalition and Russian forces there, a Pentagon spokesman said.

Targeting questioned

Meanwhile, the Pentagon and Western officials question whether the Russian airstrikes, spotted near the western Syrian city of Homs, are aimed at the Islamic State.

​​An unnamed Pentagon source told VOA that the extremist group is concentrated in the northern cities of Ruqqa and Aleppo and the eastern city of Deir al-Zour. In contrast, many fighters and other opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime are in Homs.

'By deduction, we can tell the strikes are not anti-ISIL,' the source said.

Likewise, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters in New York that, 'as we understand, these weren't zones that were controlled' by the militants. He called for the targets of the Russian raids to be verified.

A Syrian activist also told VOA of suspicious activity.

'Today, Russian planes conducted a series of airstrikes around the suburbs of Homs city,' Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat and co-founder of the Syrian activist group People Demand Change, wrote in an email. 'They targeted ONLY opposition-held areas of Homs and Hama provinces.'

The actist claimed 32 civilian deaths and six casualties among opposition forces.

The Pentagon source said U.S. pilots were not in danger, because they were flying in other airspace, over Islamic State hotbeds. The coalition struck at Aleppo on Wednesday.

Call for political solution

White House spokesman Josh Earnest, at the daily afternoon press briefing, emphasized the need for a political solution. The Obama administration wants Assad, whose family has governed Syria for four decades, to step down.

'Russia will not succeed in imposing a military solution on Syria anymore than the United States was successful in imposing a military solution on Iraq a decade ago,' Earnest said, 'and certainly no more than Russia was able to impose a military solution on Afghanistan three decades ago.'

Russia justifies decision

A spokesman for Russia's Defense Ministry said the air operations would target Islamic State military equipment, communications and vehicles, along with warehouses of weapons, ammunition and fuel.

General Igor Konashenkov, the spokesman, confirmed Wednesday's airstrikes just hours after Russia's upper house of parliament approved a request by President Vladimir Putin to deploy military forces to support Assad's government.​​

The chairman of the Federation Council's international affairs committee, Konstantin Kosachev, told the Rossiya-24 television channel that Russia's armed forces also could target the Islamic State group in countries other than Syria.

'I do not exclude any scenarios,' he said, saying that 'those whom the Syrians are chasing with our help can crawl across some virtual border, to recover, to recharge and to undergo a course of treatment,' Kosachev said. '... If you poison an insect, it is not enough to send it to the neighbors' kitchen.'

Putin, meeting with his cabinet Wednesday to discuss Russia's economic recession, said the bombing campaign began at Assad's request and respected international law.

He outlined conditions for his country's involvement.

'First of all, we will support Syrian army only in its legitimate fight, specifically against terrorist groups,' Putin said. 'Secondly, the support will be from the air without participation in ground operations. And third, such support will be limited in time, as long as Syrian army is on offensive.'

The French news agency AFP quoted a Syrian security force as saying that Russian and Syrian warplanes conducted 'numerous strikes' against 'terrorist positions' in Syria's Homs, Hama and Latakia provinces.

Russia has been building up its forces in Syria, with bombers, jets and troops arriving in the country's northwest in recent weeks, Pentagon officials said.

France, too, this week began bombing Islamic State targets in Syria. But it firmly supports replacing Assad, whose regime has been accused of dropping barrel bombs and using poison gas on its own people.

'It is our responsibility to act against the impunity of these assassins, Fabius said in a statement.

Prosecutors in Paris have launched a preliminary investigation into 'crimes against humanity,' AFP reported Wednesday.

U.S. objections

On Monday, Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama had met in New York, during a United Nations General Assembly, to seek closer coordination of military activities in Syria.

That day, Putin addressed Russia's expanding role in Syria, telling the assembly that Assad's forces are 'valiantly fighting terrorism face to face' and that refusing to cooperate with them is 'a huge mistake.' He said Assad should remain in power to fight terrorism. And he criticized the West for arming 'moderate' rebels in Syria, who, he said, joined forces with the Islamic State group.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking Wednesday to the U.N. Security Council, called for a united front.

'If Russia's recent actions, and those now ongoing, reflect a genuine commitment to defeat that organization, then we are prepared to welcome those efforts and to find a way to de-conflict our operations and thereby multiply the military pressure on ISIL and affiliated groups,' he said, suggesting talks could begin as early as this week.

But, Kerry added, 'We must not and will not be confused in our fight against ISIL with support for Assad. ISIL itself cannot be defeated as long as Bashar al-Assad remains president of Syria.'

Germany's foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, called for more authoritative information on the Russian airstrikes.

'Russia must have an interest of its own in ensuring that this is cleared up as quickly as possible,' the AP quoted him as saying. 'In this heated situation, there is a great danger that there could be further misunderstandings.''

Administration policy questioned

U.S. Senator John McCain blamed what he considers a weak Obama administration policy in the Middle East for encouraging Russia's military actions.

Though the White House a year ago announced a goal to 'degrade and destroy' the Islamic State, the president 'has done nothing that has brought us any closer to achieving that outcome,' said McCain, a Republican and longtime critic. 'This administration has confused our friends, encouraged our enemies and mistaken an excess of caution for prudence and replaced the risks of action with the perils of inaction.

'Into the wreckage of this administration's Middle East policy has now stepped Vladimir Putin.'

The Kremlin has defended its

Contributing to this report were VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb, State Department correspondent Pam Dockins and, from Moscow, Charles Maynes.

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