AFP — Russian warplanes unleashed a new wave of strikes against opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad Thursday, as Moscow and Washington sought ways to avoid confrontation between their forces.
It was the second straight day of Russian raids in Syria, where Moscow on Wednesday launched its first military engagement outside the former Soviet Union since the occupation of Afghanistan in 1979.
Russia’s defense ministry said its air force had struck five Islamic State group targets in Syria on Thursday.
“We have prevented IS fighters from reestablishing a command post in the Hama province that had been destroyed in our air strikes on September 30,” spokesman Igor Konashenkov said.
The defense ministry said it had also hit an Islamic State training camp and command post in northwest Idlib province.
Russian President Vladimir Putin hit back at allegations that civilians had been killed in Russian raids, describing such claims as “information warfare.”
The raids came as Russia presented a draft UN resolution to the Security Council that would call for consent from Damascus for attacks against the Islamic State in Syria.
A similar resolution had been previously blocked by Washington.
Moscow, a key backer of Assad, earlier said its raids destroyed a “terrorist” headquarters, a weapons warehouse, a command center and a car bomb factory.
But a Syrian security source said the strikes had targeted a powerful coalition of Islamist rebels, the Army of Conquest, which includes Al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate Al-Nusra Front and which is fiercely opposed to the Islamic State.
French President Francois Hollande said Thursday air strikes in Syria should target the Islamic State in Syria, and not other groups.
Multi-sided civil war
The Syrian conflict, which began as an uprising against Assad’s regime in 2011, has escalated into a multi-sided civil war that has drawn thousands of jihadists from overseas.
Moscow’s escalation has worried opposition supporters, with Turkish Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioglu saying Thursday he felt “serious concern over the information that Russia’s air strikes targeted opposition positions instead of Daesh [the Islamic State].”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has rejected the accusations, saying Moscow saw “eye to eye” with the US on striking the Islamic State and Al-Nusra.
US Senator John McCain accused Russian warplanes of striking groups “funded and trained by our CIA (Central Intelligence Agency),” saying that Moscow’s real priority was “to prop up Assad.”
A US-backed rebel group, Suqur al-Jabal (Falcons of the Mountain), said Russian warplanes had fired more than 10 missiles at its training camp in Idlib province.
The group has received training and equipment as part of a $500-million US program to build an anti-Islamic State force.
A US-led coalition has carried out near-daily strikes on the Islamic State in Syria for more than a year, saying Thursday it had “not altered operations in Syria to accommodate new players on the battlefield”.
Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren told reporters that coalition planes had conducted sorties and air strikes in Syria over the past 24 hours.
After complaints by the US that Russia gave just an hour’s notice of Wednesday’s attacks, the two sides were set to hold military talks Thursday to avoid mishaps between planes from the US-led coalition and Russia, a US defense official said.
The talks, known as “deconfliction,” were due to include Elissa Slotkin, the US acting assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs.
After weeks of Russian military build-up in Syria, Russian senators on Wednesday unanimously approved armed intervention.
It remains unclear how much of the opposition fighting Assad’s army — including the Western-backed opposition — is considered by Moscow as a potential target.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov appeared to admit that Russia was targeting not only the Islamic State, saying it operates according to a list apparently agreed with Damascus.
“These organizations are known,” he was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies. “The targets are determined in coordination with the Syrian defense ministry.”
A Russian foreign ministry official had said Moscow could broaden its campaign to Iraq at Baghdad’s request, but Lavrov later told reporters at the UN that Moscow was “not planning to expand our air strikes to Iraq”.
Russia’s defense ministry said Moscow had sent more than 50 military aircraft as well as marines, paratroopers and special forces into Syria.
“More than 50 warplanes and helicopters are part of the Russian airforce striking Islamic State targets in Syria,” defense ministry spokesman Konashenkov told the Interfax news agency.
Russia and the West are in deep disagreement over Syria, with Western powers blaming Assad for starting what has become a brutal war with more than 240,000 people dead and millions displaced.
Moscow has portrayed Assad as the only force stopping the spread of the Islamic State, and argues that he must be part of the conflict’s political solution.
“Life has shown that it is unrealistic to give ultimatums demanding that Assad leaves in a situation when the country is in such a crisis,” Lavrov said.