Russian military jets have carried out air strikes in Syria for the first time, targeting what Moscow said were IS positions.
However, the secretary of state John Kerry has said the United States would have “grave concerns” if Russia used the strikes to support President Bashar al-Assad against groups other than Islamic State or al-Qaeda,
Yesterday, some US-backed rebel groups claimed they were hit by Russian air strikes but those claims could not be confirmed. A moderate Western-backed rebel group said one of its leading officers was killed in central Homs province.
At the White House, presidential spokesman Josh Earnest also expressed concern over Russia’s actions.
“We are seeing the Russians ramp up their support for President Assad,” Earnest said. “They’ve been supporting him for quite some time. It’s clear they’ve made a significant military investment now in further propping him up.”
Earnest said the new action “calls into question their strategy, because when President Putin and President Obama had the opportunity to meet at the UN earlier this week much of their discussion was focused on the need for a political transition inside Syria”.
Kerry said Russian operations must not support Mr Assad or interfere with those of the US-led coalition that is already attacking Islamic State targets.
He called for an urgent start to military-to-military talks to prevent any kind of conflict between Russia and the coalition, suggesting they begin this week.
“If Russia’s recent actions and those now ongoing reflect a genuine commitment to defeat [the Islamic State] then we are prepared to welcome those efforts and to find a way to de-conflict our operations and thereby multiply military pressure on Isil and affiliated groups,” Kerry said.
“But we must not and will not be confused in our fight against Isil with support for Assad.”
Kerry also said the US-led coalition would “dramatically accelerate” its efforts.
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov followed Kerry, saying Russia is ready to “forge standing channels of communication to ensure a maximally effective fight.”
He listed countries with a key role to play in resolving the chaos in Syria, including Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, the US and China.
President Vladimir Putin sought to portray the air strikes as a pre-emptive attack against the Islamic militants who have taken over large parts of Syria and Iraq. Russia estimates at least 2,400 of its own citizens are already fighting alongside extremists in Syria and Iraq.
“If they (militants) succeed in Syria, they will return to their home country, and they will come to Russia, too,” Putin said in a televised speech at a government session.
The US and Russia both agree on the need to fight IS, but are in dispute about what to do about Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s government.
At the UN General Assembly, Barack Obama said the US and Russia could work together on a political transition, but only if Assad leaving power was the result. Putin is Assad’s most powerful backer.
The Russian air strikes targeted positions, vehicles and warehouses that Moscow believes belong to IS militants, Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov told Russian newsagencies.
Syrian state television quoted an unnamed military official as saying that Russian warplanes have targeted IS positions in central Syria, including the areas of Rastan and Talbiseh, and areas near the town of Salamiyeh in Hama province.
IS controls parts of Homs province, including the historic town of Palmyra. Homs also has positions run by al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, known as the Nusra Front. Both groups have fighters from the former Soviet Union including Chechens.
Genevieve Casagrande of the Institute of the Study of War, using an alternative acronym for IS, said the air strike on Talbisah, “did not hit Isis militants and rather resulted in a large number of civilian casualties”.
“If confirmed, the airstrike would signal Russian intent to assist in the Syrian regime’s war effort at large, rather than securing the regime’s coastal heartland of Latakia and Tartous,” she said.
US State Department spokesman John Kirby said a Russian official in Baghdad informed US embassy personnel that Russian military aircraft would shortly begin flying anti-IS missions over Syria.
The Russian official also asked that US aircraft avoid Syrian airspace during those missions. Kirby didn’t say if the US agreed to that.
The US-led coalition fighting IS will continue to fly missions over Iraq and Syria, Kirby added.
The US official who spoke on condition of anonymity said there were no conflicts with the Russian strikes.
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