Monday 26 September 2016

Russia begins Syria air strikes as war enters volatile new phase

* Moscow says it hit eight Islamic State targets
* Russia's most dramatic Middle East move in decades
* Moscow warns U.S. to keep its aircraft out of the way
* White House says Russia is moving to "prop up" Assad
* Devastation unleashed in parts of Homs province

By Andrew Osborn and Phil Stewart

Published 30/09/2015 | 16:38

Russia's President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the government at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow Photo: AFP PHOTO
Russia's President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the government at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow Photo: AFP PHOTO

RUSSIA launched air strikes in Syria today in the Kremlin's biggest Middle East intervention in decades, but Moscow's assertion that it had hit Islamic State was immediately disputed by the United States and rebels on the ground.

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The air strikes plunged the four-year-old civil war in Syria into a volatile new phase as President Vladimir Putin moved forcefully to assert Russian influence in the unstable region. The attacks also raised the dangerous specter of Washington and Moscow running air strikes concurrently and in the same region, but without coordination.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said he had directed U.S. military officials to meet with their Russian counterparts "as soon as possible" to discuss ways to make sure they do not come into conflict.

The United States said a Russian official in Baghdad warned it to keep American aircraft that have been pressing a daily bombing campaign against Islamic State positions to stay out of Syrian airspace during Moscow's air strikes. But the United States continued its air operations, saying it targeted Islamic State near the Syrian city of Aleppo.

Putin said he was striking against Islamic State and helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, long Russia's closest ally in the region, in this aim.

But Washington is concerned that Moscow is more interested in propping up Assad, who the United States has long held should leave office, than in beating Islamic State. Assad's opponents in the brutal civil war include rebel groups that oppose both him and Islamic State and that are supported by the United States and other Western countries.

 

The Russian defense ministry said it carried out about 20 flights over Syria, hitting eight Islamic State targets and destroying an Islamic State command post and an operations center in a mountainous area, Russian agencies reported.

Syrians living in rebel-held areas of Homs province said the violence unleashed by the Russian air force unleashed a whole new level of devastation on their towns. Jets flying at higher altitudes than the Syrian air force emitted no noise to alert the people below to raids reported to have killed at least 33 civilians, including children.

Moscow's intervention means the conflict in Syria has been transformed in a few months from a proxy war, in which outside powers were arming and training mostly Syrians to fight each other, to an international conflict in which the world's main military powers except China are directly involved in fighting.

Russia joined the United States and its Arab allies, Turkey, France, Iran and Israel in direct intervention, with Britain expected to join soon, if it gets parliamentary approval.

Carter said of the strikes, "It does appear that they were in areas where there probably were not ISIL forces, and that is precisely one of the problems with this whole approach." ISIL is one of the acronyms for Islamic State, which has seized control of large areas of Syria and Iraq over the past year.

Notice of the attack came from a Russian official in Baghdad who asked the United States to avoid Syrian airspace during the mission, U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said.

Read more: France investigates alleged crimes against humanity by Assad

DANGER IN THE SKIES

Moscow's move meant that warplanes from both the United States and Russia will be sharing the skies above Syria.

"In this heated situation there is a great danger of further misunderstandings," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said at the United Nations.

Reflecting growing tension between the big powers, U.S. Secretary John Kerry phoned his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov early on Wednesday to tell him the United States regarded the strikes as dangerous, a U.S. official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Russia was moving to "ramp up" support for Assad, adding, "They've made a significant military investment now in further popping him up."

Earnest called it "an indication of how concerned they are about losing influence in the one client state that they have in the Middle East."

At least 200,000 people have been killed and millions driven from their homes since the civil war began in 2011 when Assad's forces moved to crush peaceful protests against his family's four-decade rule.

Read more: Russian airstrikes offer support to Syrian army offensive

In Moscow, Putin said the air strikes would be limited in scope and that he hoped Assad was ready for political reform and a compromise for the sake of his country and people.

"I know that President Assad understands that and is ready for such a process. We hope that he will be active and flexible and ready to compromise in the name of his country and his people," Putin told reporters.

Kerry said Washington would have "grave concerns" if Russia hit Syrian targets where Islamic State fighters were not present. Speaking at the U.N. Security Council, Kerry also reiterated Washington's view that the militant group "cannot be defeated as long as Bashar al-Assad remains president of Syria."

Areas of Homs province struck by the Russians are controlled by an array of rebel groups including several operating under the banner of the "Free Syrian Army," activists, locals and rebels said.

The Homs area is crucial to Assad's control of western Syria. Insurgent control of that area would bisect the Assad-held west, separating Damascus from the coastal cities of Latakia and Tartous, where Russia operates a naval facility.

Read more: Trump: I support Putin in stand against terror in Syria

'CHANNELS OF COMMUNICATION'

The Russian air strikes came two days after Putin met with U.S. President Barack Obama at the United Nations and the two agreed their armed forces should hold talks to avoid coming into conflict in Syria.

Lavrov said Russia was ready to open "standing channels of communication" with the U.S.-led coalition bombing Islamic State militants.

Russian jets went into action after the upper house of the Russian parliament gave Putin unanimous backing for strikes following a request for military assistance from Assad.

The last time the Russian parliament granted Putin the right to use military force abroad, a technical requirement under Russian law, Moscow seized Crimea from Ukraine last year.

Putin said Russia's military involvement in the Middle East would involve only its air force and would be temporary. One of the reasons for getting involved was the need to stop Russian citizens who had joined the ranks of Islamic State from later returning home to cause trouble, he said.

Russia has been steadily dispatching military aircraft to a base in Latakia, regarded as an Assad stronghold, after the Syrian government suffered a series of battlefield reverses.

Moscow has already sent military experts to a recently established command centre in Baghdad which is coordinating air strikes and ground troops in Syria, a Russian official told Reuters.

Russia's involvement in Syria will be a further challenge for Moscow, which is already intervening in Ukraine at a time when its own economy is suffering from low oil prices and Western sanctions.

Reuters

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