Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Russia Begins Airstrikes in Syria; U.S. Warns of New Concerns in Conflict
Russia says it launched airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria on Wednesday after President Vladimir Putin secured his parliament's unanimous backing. Amateur video purportedly shot in the city of Homs shows military jets lying overhead and buildings reduced to rubble.

By Andrew Roth, Brian Murphy and Missy Ryan
September 30 at 1:08 PM
MOSCOW — Russian warplanes began airstrikes in Syria on Wednesday, adding an unpredictable new element to a multi-layered war that has already drawn in the United States and allies, created millions of refugees and expanded the reach of the Islamic State.

Washington quickly criticized the airstrikes, which the Pentagon said apparently hit areas where Islamic State militants — ostensibly the intended targets — probably were not present. But U.S. officials said Moscow’s moves would not change a U.S.-led air campaign targeting Islamic State strongholds in Syria.

The Russian strikes also sharply raised the stakes over competing visions for Syria outlined earlier this week at the United Nations, with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin insisting that Syria’s embattled government is the key to stability, and President Obama saying the “status quo” cannot stand after more than four years of bloodshed.

The introduction of Russian air power — just hours after Russia’s parliament authorized the use of military force — is certain to deepen American concerns over possible escalations on Syrian battle fronts.

In addition, Russia now gives bolstered firepower to its longtime ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose forces are fighting both the Islamic State and rebel factions, including some backed by the West.

Assad’s forces are blamed for crackdowns and attacks that have forced more than 4 million people to flee the country, many of whom are now joining a wave of asylum seekers and migrants flooding Europe.

Addressing the U.N. Security Council, Secretary of State John F. Kerry drove home Obama’s message, saying the answer to Syria’s civil war cannot be found in a military alliance with Assad.

“But it can be found . . . through a broadly supported diplomatic initiative aimed at a negotiated political transition” that would “unite all Syrians who reject dictatorship and terrorism,” he said.

Kerry further put Russia on notice, saying the United States would have “grave concerns” if Russian airstrikes “should strike targets where [Islamic State] and affiliated targets are not operating,” and instead hit U.S.-backed moderate opposition forces fighting Assad.

He called on Russia and others to “support a U.N. initiative to broker a political transition” in Syria.

“Further delay is unconscionable,” Kerry said.

Speaking to reporters later at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said it appeared that the Russian airstrikes were carried out in areas where Islamic State forces were “probably” not present, “and that is precisely one of the problems with this whole approach.”

Carter said a U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State militants intends to “continue our air operations unimpeded” despite the Russian intervention. He said meetings between U.S. and  Russian defense officials in the next few days would help to make sure there are no “inadvertent incidents” between coalition and Russian pilots who are flying combat sorties over Syria.

Carter said there was a “logical contradiction” in Russia’s aim of fighting terrorism in Syria while also supporting the Assad regime. He said the Russians were “seemingly taking on everyone who is fighting Assad,” as opposed to the U.S. approach of specifically targeting the Islamic State and like-minded extremists. “We believe at least some parts of the anti-Assad opposition belong as part of a transition going forward.”

At a White House news briefing Wednesday, press secretary Josh Earnest warned that “Russia will not succeed in imposing a military solution on Syria.”

In Moscow, a statement from Russia’s Defense Ministry said airstrikes were carried out “against positions held by the Islamic State in Syrian territory,” including military vehicles, communications centers, weapons caches, ammunition and fuel depots. The ministry did not note the locations.

But the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported that Russian aircraft took part in attacks near the western city of Homs to strike “dens” of the Islamic State, a heavily armed al-Qaeda offshoot that is also known as ISIS and ISIL.

Homs is a former hotbed of the popular revolt that began against Assad in 2011, and the city is still not fully in government hands. Some areas outside Homs have now become footholds for the Islamic State.

Assad’s forces have made holding onto parts of Homs province a strategic priority to link the capital, Damascus, with government strongholds on the Mediterranean coast, including the key port city of Latakia. Russia has a naval facility at Tartus, about 50 miles south of Latakia.

One opposition leader, Hisham Marwah, claimed that the Russian airstrikes “targeted civilians, not ISIS,” killing at least 37 people in the town of Talbiseh in Homs province.

“The people of this area are opposed to ISIS,” said Marwah, vice president of the Syrian National Coalition, speaking by telephone from the United States. His account could not be independently verified.

Separately, a U.S.-supported rebel group in Syria, Tajamu Alezzah, claimed in a Twitter post that it came under attack by Russian warplanes in Hama province, north of Homs.

Amid the fast-moving developments, Kerry told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that the Russian airstrikes are “not helpful,” according to a senior State Department official speaking anonymously about the Russian military activity.

Kerry also told Lavrov the airstrikes run counter to Russia’s stated intention to cooperate on so-called “deconfliction,” or making sure that mishaps do not happen inadvertently in the air.

The official said Kerry insisted that deconfliction talks must begin immediately.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said the Russian airstrikes “in no way will alter the United States or coalition missions against ISIL . . . particularly air missions.

Kirby confirmed that a Russian official informed a U.S. Embassy official Wednesday morning that Russia would be flying tactical missions over Syria. He said the Russian official requested that U.S. and coalition aircraft not fly at all over Syria.

“Russia will factually be the only country to carry out this operation on the legitimate basis of the request of the legitimate government of Syria,” Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, told journalists after the parliament vote in Moscow.

The resolution came without warning in the Federation Council, Russia’s higher body of parliament, where 162 senators voted unanimously in support after a closed-door discussion — similar to a vote last year to green-light Russian military force in Ukraine.

In a brief statement, the Kremlin said Putin had requested the authorization to use force “on the basis of universally recognized principles and norms of international law.”

“The atmosphere was entirely one of solidarity,” Oleg Morozov, a member of the Federation Council, said of the debate. “There were no questions that might have influenced this atmosphere.”

Sergei Ivanov, the Kremlin chief of staff, said on national television that the resolution was strictly limited to the use of Russian aviation in Syria and that ground troops would not be sent into battle.

“We are not discussing achieving foreign policy goals or fulfilling the ambitions that our Western partners regularly accuse us of,” said Ivanov. “We are exclusively discussing the national interests of the Russian Federation.”

While Russia has supplied arms to Assad for years, a direct military intervention seemed unlikely until early this month, when Russian aircraft, tanks, artillery and troops were spotted in the port of Latakia, an Assad stronghold.

Putin continued to keep Western leaders off-balance by calling for a broad coalition with the Syrian government to fight the Islamic State, and by opening an intelligence-sharing hub in Baghdad with Iraq, Syria and Iran.

The moves led to a one-on-one meeting between Putin and Obama at the United Nations General Assembly this week, although Obama had shunned Putin over the Ukraine crisis.

Asked at the United Nations in New York on Monday whether he would consider using airstrikes in Syria, Putin said that “we do not rule out anything, but if we act, we will do it in strict compliance with the international law.” He did rule out the use of ground forces in Syria.

Critics say that the Kremlin is using the Syrian crisis to escape international isolation following its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, and to divert attention at home from the conflict in eastern Ukraine’s between government forces and Russian-backed separatists.

Murphy and Ryan reported from Washington. Daniela Deane in London, Hugh Naylor in Beirut, Carol Morello and Karen DeYoung at the United Nations and Thomas Gibbons-Neff and William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.

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