Russia carries out first Syria air strikes

30th September 2015, Comments 0 comments

Russia launched air strikes in war-torn Syria on Wednesday, its first military engagement outside the former Soviet Union since the occupation of Afghanistan in 1979.

Russian warplanes carried out strikes in several Syrian provinces along with regime aircraft as Vladimir Putin seeks to steal US President Barack Obama's thunder by pushing a rival plan to defeat Islamic State militants in Syria.

But the United States said that Russian jets had targeted the Syrian opposition and not the IS group.

"We have not seen any strikes against ISIL," a US defence official said, referring to the IS group by an alternative name. "What we have seen is strikes against the Syrian opposition."

France also raised doubts over whether the Russian raids were aimed at IS amid Western concerns that Moscow may be seeking to buttress Syria's embattled leader Bashar al-Assad.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters at the United Nations that there "were indications that the Russian strikes did not target" IS militants.

The Russian defence ministry had said earlier it launched surgical strikes against IS militants.

Putin, who earlier Wednesday got parliamentary permission to use force abroad, warned Moscow would be hunting down IS militants before they target Russia.

Putin also said Assad should be ready for compromise with the opposition.

"We are counting on his... readiness for compromise for the sake of his country and his people," Putin said.

He pledged that Russia would not get sucked into a protracted military operation in Syria and called on other countries to join an intelligence task force Moscow is setting up with Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Russia will also present a UN draft resolution to the Security Council on countering terrorism to build up the fight against IS, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

Addressing the General Assembly for the first time in a decade, Putin on Monday proposed creating a UN-backed coalition to fight the militants.

Putin's proposal is seen as a direct challenge to Obama who has vowed to crush IS.

- 'Russian strikes not helpful' -

Washington has expressed concern that Moscow's support for its Soviet-era ally may complicate operations of the US-led coalition against the extremists.

Kerry told Lavrov earlier Wednesday that Moscow's move "is not helpful to that effort", a senior US official said.

Kerry said Washington would not oppose Russian strikes if they are "genuinely" intended to defeat the IS group.

"Terrorist positions" were targeted by the Russians in Hama and Homs provinces, and they aided government air strikes in Latakia province, the regime's stronghold, a Syrian security source said.

Putin is seeking to muscle his way back onto the world stage after months of Western isolation following Russia's seizure of Crimea from Ukraine and support for a separatist insurgency in the east of the ex-Soviet country.

The Russian parliament had approved Putin's request to use force abroad after Assad asked Russia for military support.

Putin's chief of staff Sergei Ivanov said the operation would be limited in duration and ruled out ground operations by Russian troops.

Putin had also sought permission from parliament to deploy military forces in Ukraine ahead of Russia's annexation of Crimea last year.

- Differences with the West -

Washington and its allies blame Assad for the mayhem in Syria, where four years of bloodshed have killed more than 240,000 people.

It says the Syrian leader must go if the Islamic State group is to be defeated.

Russia argues however that the West should support Assad in his fight against the jihadists.

France said it had launched a probe into Assad's regime for alleged crimes against humanity, saying it was forced to act in the face of "systematic cruelty".

France, which is part of the US-led coalition, carried out its own first air strikes against extremist positions in Syria on Sunday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said the bombs killed at least 30 jihadists.

The Pentagon says Russia has in recent weeks sent troops, warplanes and other military hardware to Syria.

- 'Holy battle' -

Russia's powerful Orthodox Church voiced support for Moscow's decision to carry out air strikes in Syria, calling it a "holy battle".

But many accused the Kremlin of a short-sighted approach.

Alexander Konovalov, head of the Strategic Analysis Institute, said Russia was guided by a desire to end its diplomatic isolation and may not fully realise the long-term consequences of a military involvement in the Middle East.

"We were going to Afghanistan for six months and stayed there for 10 years," he told AFP, referring to a conflict that killed over 14,000 Soviet troops between 1979 and 1989.

Sixty nine percent of Russians are against Moscow's deployment of troops in Syria, with just 14 percent in favour, according to a recent poll by the Levada Centre.

Wednesday's news set social networks alight, with many commentators predicting dire consequences for Russians.

"Hide your sons," one Russian, Zaira Abdullaeva, wrote on Facebook.

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© 2015 AFP

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