MOSCOW, Sept 30, (AFP): 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 three Syrian provinces along with regime aircraft as Putin seeks to steal US President Barack Obama’s thunder by pushing a rival plan to defeat Islamic State militants in Syria. But France immediately raised doubts over whether the Russian raids were aimed at IS. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters at the United Nations in New York that there “were indications that the Russian strikes did not target DAESH (a pejorative Arab acronym for IS).” Putin, who earlier Wednesday won parliamentary permission to use force abroad, warned Russia 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 active and flexible position, his readiness for compromise for the sake of his country and his people,” Putin said in televised remarks. He pledged that Russia would not get sucked into a protracted military operation in Syria and called on 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 and called on countries to join the United States in its campaign.
Russia’s air strikes drew a rebuke from Washington which has expressed concern that Moscow’s support for its Sovietera ally may complicate operations of the US-led coalition. US Secretary of State John Kerry told Lavrov that Moscow’s move “runs counter to their stated efforts of deconfliction and is not helpful to that effort,” a senior US official said. American officials insisted Russia’s strikes would not alter their coalition’s strategy. 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. Putin and Obama agreed at a meeting this week that their defence and foreign ministries would be in contact on Syria. “They gave us a heads-up they were going to start striking in Syria,” a US defence official said. “It was in the vicinity of Homs.” The upper house of the Russian parliament, the Federation Council, had earlier Wednesday unanimously approved Putin’s request to use force abroad. The decision was taken after Assad asked Russia for military support. Putin’s chief of staff Sergei Ivanov said the Syria 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. Washington and its allies blame Assad for the mayhem in Syria, where four years of bloodshed have killed more than 240,000 people. Washington 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 meanwhile 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 36 jihadists. The Pentagon says Russia has in recent weeks sent warplanes and other military hardware to northwestern Syria — along with at least 500 troops — in what many fear is an attempt to keep the country’s president in power. Moscow’s proposal for a broader coalition has exposed differences among Washington’s European allies, with some siding with Obama and others saying Moscow should have a greater role in fighting IS. 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 respected Levada Centre.