US, Russia Military Officials Holding Talks on Syria
by VOA News October 01, 2015
The United States and Russia called an emergency teleconference Thursday morning in an effort to avoid firing upon each other as each wages air campaigns in Syria.
The conference, including two high-level U.S. defense officials and at least one Russian counterpart, was precipitated by Moscow's launch of airstrikes Wednesday in support of Syria. A Pentagon spokesman confirmed the talks had begun.
But the officials' conversation comes amid signs that Russia may be preparing to expand its air operations to neighboring Iraq.
A senior Russian diplomat said his country would consider airstrikes in Iraq if Baghdad asks, though Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov indicated otherwise.
'Not planning to expand'
'We are not planning to expand our airstrikes to Iraq,' Lavrov said at a Thursday news conference at the United Nations in New York. 'We were not invited, we were not asked. We are polite people; we don't come unless invited.'
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said he would welcome Russian aid in defeating the Islamic State. He told France 24 television earlier in the day that if Russia offers air support, 'we will consider it and I would welcome it,' Reuters reported.
In its fight with the Islamic State, Iraq's government primarily has been supported by the U.S.-led coalition. To date, it has provided $2.3 billion in equipment and air support. Its current ground force of 5,451 includes 3,359 Americans, a Pentagon spokesman said Thursday.
Broader target list
Meanwhile, Russian jets staged a second day of airstrikes in Syria Thursday, targeting not only Islamic State militant extremists but, some observers charge, also fighters backed by the United States.
Russian aircraft had hit a dozen Islamic State targets, including a command center and two ammunition depots, Defense Minister Igor Konashenkov said in a televised report, The Associated Press reported.
The Kremlin acknowledged it also was taking aim at 'a list' of groups beyond the extremist group.
'These organizations are well known and the targets are chosen in coordination with the armed forces of Syria,' spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Thursday.
His words contradicted a statement Wednesday by Russian President Vladimir Putin's chief of staff that raids were solely meant to aid Syria's government in fighting the Islamic State group.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia's goal in Syria is to help Assad's forces fight extremist groups such as Islamic State in areas where the Syrian government is struggling. 'The aim [of the airstrikes] is really to help the armed forces of Syria in their weak spots,' he said.
Airstrikes on Thursday pounded areas where the U.S.-backed rebel group Tajamu Alezzah is operating, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, according to the AP.
U.S. Senator John McCain, who heads the Senate's Armed Services Committee, said he had proof that Russian warplanes had attacked U.S.-trained fighters.
'Their initial strikes were against the individuals and the groups that have been funded and trained by our CIA,' McCain said Thursday on CNN.
He accused Moscow of trying to prop up its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom the United States and other Western countries want out of office.
Speculation on Iranian ground troops
The conflict, now engaging two military superpowers, may be escalating further.
Hundreds of Iranian troops newly arrived in Syria will join in a major ground operation with Assad's government forces and Lebanese Hezbollah allies, two Lebanese sources predicted to Reuters.
Russian 'airstrikes will in the near future be accompanied by ground advances by the Syrian army and its allies,' the news agency on Wednesday reported one source saying.
'It is possible that the coming land operations will be focused in the Idlib and Hama countryside,' the source said.
The goal would be to reclaim territory for the Assad regime, the two sources said.
To date, Iran primarily has provided military advisers in the conflict.
At a Pentagon news conference Thursday, spokesman Colonel Steve Warren did not confirm reports that Iranian troops had crossed into Syria. But, he said, 'It's no surprise to us that the Iranians are present.'
Iran's Foreign Ministry on Thursday endorsed Russia's airstrikes.
Spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said the Islamic Republic 'considers military action by Russia against armed terrorist groups to be a step toward fighting terrorism and toward resolving the current crisis,' Reuters reported from a statement carried by the official IRNA news agency.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a speech Thursday at the United Nations, warned against a nuclear-armed Iran and said his country would respond forcefully to any attacks from Syria.
The U.S.-led coalition conducted 21 strikes on Thursday and a single bombing operation, by drone, the previous day, the U.S. Central Command reported.
At the Pentagon Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the American-led coalition would continue its airstrike campaign and, with other countries, exert even more pressure against Islamic State militants.
He also said Russian airstrikes in Syria hit areas that 'probably' did not contain Islamic State fighters.
'It does appear [the strikes] were in areas where there were probably not ISIL forces,' Carter said, referring to an alternative acronym for the Islamic State group.
An unnamed Pentagon source told VOA Wednesday that the extremist group was concentrated in the cities of Raqqa 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.
'War of disinformation'
Russian officials initially insisted their warplanes were hitting at the same extremists targeted by the United States and contradicted American criticism that its military failed to coordinate the airstrikes, describing the allegations as a "war of disinformation."
Alexander Orlov, the Russian ambassador to France, said Moscow's intervention came only after a year of airstrikes by the U.S. and its partners failed to dislodge Islamic State extremists, and predicted that Syria could be ready for "free elections" within a year. Russia's military said it carried out 20 airstrikes Wednesday.
The Russian Defense Ministry said its warplanes on Wednesday targeted and destroyed eight positions belonging to extremists from the IS group in what Putin called a pre-emptive strike against the militants.
The ministry gave no specific locations, but Orlov said the targets were installations for Islamic State and the Nusra Front, al-Qaida's affiliate in Syria – 'two terrorist organizations recognized as such.' Orlov told France Info radio the planes were acting as air support for Syrian ground troops, and criticized the effectiveness of anti-IS operations to date.
'We see that this coalition has been operating in Syria for a year, 5,000 airstrikes have been carried out, and Islamic State is still there," Orlov added.
Dangerous new dimension
With American and allied airstrikes daily, and now Russian warplanes in the Syrian airspace, the war is taking on a dangerous new dimension.
Orlov said Russian officials warned the Americans "via confidential channels" of where they planned to strike. He also noted a coordination center was being set up in Baghdad that would include Syrians, Iraqis, Iranians and Russians – and any other country that wants to participate.
Khaled Khoja, head of the Syrian National Council opposition group, said at the U.N. that Russian airstrikes in four areas, including Talbiseh, killed 36 civilians, with five children among the dead.
The claim could not be independently verified. At a Thursday news conference, a Pentagon spokesman said he had no information.
Putin denied reports of any civilian deaths in Russian airstrikes.
"We are ready for such information attacks. The first reports of civilian casualties came even before our jets took off,'' he said Thursday in a live broadcast from the Kremlin, according to the AP.
Russia began carrying out airstrikes in Syria Wednesday, just hours after lawmakers gave Putin the permission to deploy Russian military forces there.
Russia's decision to begin airstrikes in Syria in support of Assad's regime 'is tantamount to pouring gasoline on the fire' of that country's four-year civil war, Pentagon chief Carter said.
The conflict, rooted in a civilian uprising against Assad in March 2011, has claimed more than 250,000 lives and forced millions to flee – mostly elsewhere in the Middle East or to Europe.
Pamela Dockins at the State Department, Carla Babb at the Pentagon and Jeff Seldin contributed to this report. Some material for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.
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