Western nations accused Russia yesterday (Friday) of escalating the Syrian conflict and fuelling extremism, as Moscow’s warplanes conducted air strikes for a third day, raising fears over civilian casualties.
Russia waded into the four year-long conflict on Wednesday, launching surprise bombing runs against rebel groups fighting the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, with the official line from Moscow that Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) was the target.
Britain, America and five other nations called on Russia to “immediately” end the attacks and to focus only on fighting Isil. In a statement, they expressed “deep concern” over the Russian military build-up in Syria and, in particular, strikes on Hama, Homs and Idlib, saying these had resulted in civilian casualties and did not target the jihadist group.
“These military actions constitute a further escalation and will only fuel more extremism and radicalisation,” said the statement, also signed by Germany, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. The Russian defence ministry said in a statement yesterday that it had flown 18 sorties against 12 Isil targets in the provinces of Aleppo, Idlib, Hama, and Raqqa between Thursday evening and yesterday morning.
Monitoring groups said dozens of civilians had been killed or maimed as apparently unguided Russian munitions have also targeted non-Isil rebels, including a group backed by the CIA.
As accusations flew, Moscow said it would plough on and finish a job that America had failed to complete.
In the first indication of a possible time frame for Russia’s campaign, Alexei Pushkov, head of the State Duma’s foreign affairs committee, suggested air strikes could last “three to four months”.
“The US-led coalition has pretended to bomb Daesh [another name for Isil] for a year, without results,” he said. “If you do it in a more efficient way, I think you’ll see results.”
Alexander Orlov, the Russian ambassador in Paris, insisted they were only targeting Isil and Jabhat al Nusra, two groups in the sights of a separate US-led air campaign. Moscow dismissed reports that its strikes had killed civilians as “complete nonsense”. The Russian defence ministry said: “The information provocations emerging today were prepared in haste before the beginning of operations. We knew of their existence.” At the UN summit in New York, Walid al-Moualem, the Syrian foreign minister, said air strikes against militants in his country were useless if not coordinated with his government – the “only force in Syria combating terrorism”.
Experts said Russia’s intervention will prolong Syria’s conflict. “Groups inside Syria are now putting aside their differences to join forces against the perceived Russian invasion,” said Hassan Hassan, of Chatham House.
Lt Gen Robert P Otto, a deputy chief of staff in the US air force, said on Thursday it appeared the Russian forces were using “dumb bombs” instead of weapons guided by lasers or satellites. Rescue workers in Homs posted photographs of shattered civilian homes and the corpses of two small children. Khaled Khoja, head of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, said Russia was “clearly” targeting opposition-held areas. There were fresh reports of an Iranian and Hizbollah-backed ground offensive being planned in co-ordination with the Russian air cover.
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