Thursday, October 1, 2015

Russia launches airstrikes against al-Assad's enemies

Russia carried out new airstrikes inside Syria on Thursday, the country's Defense Ministry said in a statement, a day after it changed the calculus of Mideast politics by entering the Syrian civil war on the side of President Bashar al-Assad.

"Russian Aerospace Forces engaged another four #ISIS facilities in #Syria this night," the Russian Ministry of Defense announced on Twitter along with gun camera video showing large explosions.

The strikes were carried out by eight Russian SU-24 and SU-25 jets, which claimed to hit ISIS "terrorist staff" and an ammunition dump near Idlib and another headquarters in Hama.

But 24 hours into the military campaign, Russia's aims started to come into clearer focus -- that it is targeting those who oppose al-Assad, including more moderate factions that are supported by the United States and others in the west.

As much as Russia is working against terrorist groups, it appears to be intent on supporting the Assad regime.

A Syrian official stated as much on Thursday.

The airstrikes are being carried out in "complete cooperation" with the Syrian army, Syria's ambassador to Russia, Riad Haddad, said in a news conference Thursday.

Responding to U.S. accusations that the Russians are not targeting ISIS but other groups opposed to the Syrian regime, Haddad said any armed group fighting the Syrian forces is considered terrorist. The opposition Free Syrian Army, Haddad said, is not different from ISIS in the eyes of the Syrian government.

"They are all working and supporting the goals of Daesh," he said, referring to ISIS.

McCain: Putin's goal 'to prop up Bashar al-Assad'

And Sen. John McCain told CNN's Christ Cuomo that he could "absolutely confirm" that the initial strikes were "against our Free Syrian Army or groups that have been armed and trained by the CIA, because we have communications with people there."

McCain called the Russian strikes "an incredible flouting of any kind of cooperation or effort to conceal what their first -- Putin's priority is. And that is of course to prop up Bashar al-Assad."

Russian officials had said they were attacking ISIS, perhaps the most brutal terrorist group to emerge in decades. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was careful Thursday to indicate that the targets in Syria were not limited to that group.

"At the request of the Syrian government, we're helping them to fight ISIS and other terrorist groups," Lavrov said.

U.S. officials questioned whether ISIS is active in the areas hit by the Russian strikes, which on Wednesday were around the city of Homs, in western Syria near the border with Lebanon.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Wednesday that the Russian attacks, which the Kremlin said were meant to target terrorists, didn't appear to hit targets under the control of ISIS, which operates in the north and east of the country.

And the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, also cast doubt on Russia's account.

"Local Syrian sources claim the airstrikes exclusively targeted rebel positions, including the headquarters of Free Syrian Army-affiliated, Western-backed TOW anti-tank missile recipient al-Izza," the think tank reported on its website.

Russia says it launched airstrikes against ISIS on Wednesday, but some experts say the terror group doesn't operate in the areas that were hit.

Iraq: Russian help 'beneficial'

The Iraqi Prime Minister welcomed Russia's involvement.

"Well, of course it is beneficial," Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in an interview with PBS. "Don't forget, Iraq was attacked from across the Syrian border into Iraq by Da'esh, by ISIL. And that cost us a lot of human costs in terms of people killed, people being kidnapped, people being enslaved, women, children."

For that reason, al-Abadi said, Iraq appreciated anyone willing to join the fight.

"Our message to the Russians -- I met with Putin -- please join this fight against Da'esh," he said, using another name for ISIS. "Da'esh is a dangerous terrorist organization, not only against Iraq, against Syria, against the whole region, against the whole world. It is time that we all join the same forces to fight Da'esh."

Russia's Syria expedition: Why now?

Russia says it's supporting Syrian army

A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters Thursday morning that it was too early to evaluate the country's military operation in Syria, according to the state-run news agency ITAR-Tass.

The spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the operation was temporary and would continue only as long as the Syrian army was on the offensive.

"It's important to understand that this operation is to support the Syrian army in the fight with ISIS and other extremist groups," he said. "There's a list of these groups, they all are known. Of course all targets are located in coordination with the Syrian army."

Peskov declined comment on reports that Saudi Arabia had asked Russia to end its operation in Syria.

"I saw these media reports, and I even looked for those statements of the representative of Saudi Arabia myself," he said. "I didn't find them, so I can't answer your question."

Why are Russian airstrikes in Syria such a big deal?

Washington's level of surprise 'quite low'

The White House downplayed the dangers of the Russian move.

"I think the Russians have made clear that they're not interested in provoking a conflict," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said. "Their actions thus far indicate that that's what they believe."

And unlike Carter, who described the Russian means of informing the United States of its airstrikes launch as "unprofessional," Earnest shrugged off any breach in procedure, saying the level of "upset and surprise" at the White House over Russia's moves was "quite low" given Moscow's consistent support for al-Assad.

Officials at the White House said they were waiting to see how Russia's moves pan out in the coming days and were confident that talks between military officials from the two countries would help avoid midair conflicts -- even as some military analysts questioned the effectiveness of those potential talks.

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