Russia said it launched its first airstrikes in Syria Wednesday, though both the US and France expressed doubts over Moscow’s claims only Islamic State group positions had been targeted.
Moscow gave Washington just an hour’s notice of the strikes, which set in motion Russia’s biggest show of force in the region since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, a US official said.
Targets in the Homs area appeared to have been struck with the Russian defence ministry saying a total of "eight Islamic State targets" had been hit, including a command post held by the jihadist group.
"The targets, notably a command centre of the terrorists, were completely destroyed," the ministry said in a statement.
But French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said “initial indications" show the airstrikes did not target zones controlled by the Islamic State group.
Fabius told reporters in New York that “verification is underway" to determine what the Russian strikes targeted, but that it currently appears they may have targeted zones held by Syrian opposition forces, who Moscow considers terrorists seeking to overthrow its long-time ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
That was backed up by the White House, with US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter saying it “does appear (the strikes) were in areas where there were probably not [IS group] forces.
‘Doomed to fail’
Carter also expressed disappointment that the Russians did not use formal channels to provide the US with advance notice of its airstrikes.
"By supporting Assad and seemingly taking on everyone who is fighting Assad, you're taking on the whole rest of the country of Syria," Carter said. "That is not our position. At least some parts of the anti-Assad opposition belong in the political transition going forward. That's why the Russian approach is doomed to fail."
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who gained parliamentary approval for the airstrikes earlier Wednesday, said the only way to fight “terrorists” in Syria was to act preemptively. He also stated that Russia’s military involvement in the Middle East would only involve its air force and would be temporary.
A US-led coalition has already been bombing the Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, but Putin derided US efforts to end the Syria war at the United Nations on Monday, suggesting a broader and more coordinated coalition was needed to defeat the militants.
“The military aim of our operations will be exclusively to provide air support to Syrian government forces in their struggle against ISIS (Islamic State group),” Sergei Ivanov, the Kremlin’s Chief-of-Staff, said before reports that the strikes had begun.
Russia has been steadily dispatching more and more military aircraft to a base in Latakia, regarded as an Assad stronghold, after the Syrian government suffered a series of battlefield reverses.
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.
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.
Ivanov, the Kremlin’s Chief of Staff, said Russia’s missions would be limited and not open-ended. He precluded the use of ground troops.
“As our president has already said, the use of ground troops has been ruled out,” said Ivanov.
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.
Russian domestic support?
Opinion polls also show Russian voters have little appetite for a long campaign, with painful memories of the Soviet Union’s 1979-89 intervention in Afghanistan, in which thousands of Soviet troops were killed, still fresh.
But as Russian real incomes fall for the first time since Putin came to power, the spectacle of the country flexing its military muscles overseas, could also be a useful distraction for the Kremlin.
Ivanov said the upper house of parliament had backed military action by 162 votes to zero after Assad had asked for Russian military assistance.
The Syrian presidency confirmed that in a statement, saying Assad had written to Putin and Russia was increasing its military support as a direct result of that appeal.
Russia’s decision to intervene in Syria was prompted by a panicky realisation that the Syrian government was losing the civil war, diplomats and analysts have told Reuters.
When it saw several months ago that Syrian government forces were retreating on several fronts at a rate that threatened Assad, its closest Middle East ally, the Kremlin quietly decided to dispatch more men, weaponry and armour.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AP, AFP)
Date created : 2015-09-30