MOSCOW, Nov 5, (AFP): Russia has sent anti-aircraft missile systems to Syria to back up its air campaign, the commander of the air force Viktor Bondarev said in an interview published Thursday. “We sent there not just fighter planes, strike aircraft and helicopters but also anti-aircraft rocket systems,” Bondarev told the Komsomolskaya Pravda tabloid. He said that Russia made the decision to bring missile systems to Syria because “we took into account every possible threat.” “There could be various force majeure situations. Let’s imagine a military plane is hijacked and taken to a neighbouring country and air strikes are aimed at us. And we have to be ready for this.” A source told Interfax news agency that the systems deployed to Syria included the BUK and Pantsir systems. “The system is set up along the lines of Israel’s Iron dome,” the source said.
Bondarev said Russia has “more than 50 planes and helicopters” in Syria, “precisely the number we need. At the moment, we do not need more.” He said that a Russian jet that strayed into Turkish territory in October had done so because as it flew along the Turkish border in dense cloud “the equipment showed that some ground-based air defence systems were trying to capture the plane. “Therefore the pilot had to make an anti-missile manoeuvre. So he passed into the Turkish air a tiny bit. As we honestly admitted,” Bondarev said.
The defence ministry previously said only that the plane strayed into Turkish air space on Oct 3 because of bad weather conditions. Turkey said the Russian aircraft exited its airspace after it was intercepted by two Turkish F-16 fighter jets. NATO called the incident a “serious violation”.
Elsewhere, the United States said Wednesday that Russia’s air war in Syria had “dangerously exacerbated” the conflict, accusing Moscow of seeking to bolster President Bashar al-Assad’s regime instead of targeting jihadists. Washington’s latest broadside against Russian intervention in Syria came as government troops, emboldened by Moscow’s support over the past month, recaptured from the Islamic State group a key road into second city Aleppo.
Speaking to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Anne Patterson said the offensives, backed by Russian air strikes, had displaced at least 120,000 people. “Russia’s military intervention has dangerously exacerbated an already complex environment,” she said. “Moscow has cynically tried to claim that its strikes are focused on terrorists, but so far, 85 to 90 percent of Syrian strikes have hit the moderate Syrian opposition and they have killed civilians in the process,” Patterson said.
Civilians have died in Russian strikes on civil defense crews, hospitals, centers for displaced persons and ambulances, she claimed. “We know that Russia’s primary intent is to preserve the regime,” she said. Regime forces launched major offensives in several parts of Syria after Russia began its intervention on Sept 30, with more than 1,300 air strikes carried out so far. “Despite our urging, Moscow has yet to stop the Assad regime’s horrific practice of barrel bombing the Syrian people,” Patterson said. She said the situation called for a “full court press to end the war and get to a political settlement.” “The Russian deployments cannot be used to stiffen the Assad regime’s resistance to a political transition.” In recent weeks, diplomatic efforts have been stepped up to resolve the conflict, which has left more than 250,000 dead and forced millions from their homes since March 2011.
Nineteen key international players met for talks in Vienna Friday, including the United States, Iran and Saudi Arabia, in the broadest push yet to end the conflict. The meeting, which did not include any representatives of the Syrian government or its opponents, agreed to ask the United Nations to broker a peace deal between the regime and opposition to clear the way for a new constitution and UN-supervised elections. Another round of international talks could be held in Vienna within two weeks, according to Patterson. Meanwhile, at least 19 civilians and several Islamic State group fighters were killed Thursday in air raids against jihadist positions in the Syrian town of Bukamal, near the border with Iraq, a monitor said. “At least 19 civilians, including a woman and two children, as well as jihadists were killed by warplanes” in the town, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding it was unclear which country carried out the bombing raids. Jihadists on Thursday seized a key town along a vital road in Syria’s central Hama province, where regime forces are struggling to gain ground despite a month of Russian air strikes. The setback for Damascus came as France announced it would deploy an aircraft carrier to boost its fight against the Islamic State group, which has seized control of large parts of Iraq and Syria.