BEIRUT/MOSCOW, Oct 2, (Agencies): Russia bombed Syria for a third day on Friday, mainly hitting areas held by rival insurgent groups rather than the Islamic State fighters it said it was targeting and drawing an increasingly angry response from the West.
The US-led coalition that is waging its own air war against Islamic State called on the Russians to halt strikes on targets other than Islamic State. “We call on the Russian Federation to immediately cease its attacks on the Syrian opposition and civilians and to focus its efforts on fighting ISIL,” said the coalition, which includes the United States, major European powers, Arab states and Turkey. “We express our deep concern with regard to the Russian military build-up in Syria and especially the attacks by the Russian Air Force on Hama, Homs and Idlib since yesterday which led to civilian casualties and did not target DAESH,” it said.
ISIL and DAESH are both acronyms for Islamic State, also known as ISIS, which has set up a caliphate across a swathe of eastern Syria and northern Iraq. In Syria, the group is one of many fighting against Russia’s ally, President Bashar al-Assad. Washington and its Western and regional allies say Russia is using it as a pretext to bomb other groups that oppose Assad.
Some of these groups have received training and weapons from Assad’s foreign enemies, including the United States. President Vladimir Putin held frosty talks with France’s Francois Hollande in Paris, Putin’s first meeting with a Western leader since launching the strikes two days after he gave an address to the United Nations making the case to back Assad. Friday prayers were cancelled in insurgent-held areas of Homs province that were hit by Russian warplanes this week, with residents concerned that mosques could be targeted, said one person from the area. “The streets are almost completely empty and there is an unannounced curfew,” said the resident, speaking from the town of Rastan which was hit in the first day of Russian air strikes.
Warplanes were seen flying high above the area, which is held by anti- Assad rebels but has no significant presence of Islamic State fighters. Islamic State also cancelled prayers in areas it controls, according to activists from its de facto capital Raqqa. A Russian air strike on Thursday destroyed a mosque in the town of Jisr al-Shughour, captured from government forces by an alliance of Islamist insurgents earlier this year, activists said.
The United Nations said it been forced to suspend planned humanitarian operations in parts of Syria due to the fighting.
Moscow said on Friday its latest strikes had hit 12 Islamic State targets, but most of the areas it described were in western and northern parts of the country, while Islamic State is mostly present in the east. The Russian Defence Ministry said its Sukhoi-34, Sukhoi-24M and Sukhoi-25 warplanes had flown 18 sorties hitting targets that included a command post and a communications centre in the province of Aleppo, a militant field camp in Idlib and a command post in Hama. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict with a network of sources on the ground, said there was no Islamic State presence at any of those areas. Russia has however also struck Islamic State areas in a small number of other attacks further east.
The Observatory said 12 Islamic State fighters were killed near Raqqa on Thursday, and planes believed to be Russian had also struck the Islamic State-held city of Qarytayn. Russia has said it is using its most advanced plane, the Sukhoi-34, near Raqqa, the area where it is most likely to encounter US and coalition aircraft targeting Islamic State. The US-led coalition said it conducted 28 air strikes on Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq on Thursday. The US-led coalition conducted 28 air strikes on Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq on Thursday, a joint statement said on Friday. Twenty of the attacks were in Iraq with six of them concentrated near the city of Al Huwayjah. Air strikes also were carried out near eight other Iraqi cities, hitting tactical units, vehicles, fighting positions and other Islamic State assets, according to the statement from the Combined Joint Task Force.
The eight strikes in Syria included six near the city of Al Hasakah, hitting tactical units, vehicles and equipment, the statement said. Elsewhere, Syria’s foreign minister said Friday that airstrikes against the Islamic State group “are useless” unless they are coordinated with the Syrian government, as the international community scrambled to respond to Russia’s airstrikes in his country. Addressing the summit of world leaders at the UN General Assembly, Walid al- Moallem said Russia’s decision to start bombing targets was based on the Assad government’s request and is effective because it supports Syria’s efforts to combat terrorism. “Terrorism cannot be fought only from the air, and all of the previous operations to combat it have only served its spread and outbreak,” al-Moallem said. “Airstrikes are useless unless they are conducted in cooperation with the Syrian army, the only force in Syria that is combating terrorism,” he added.
Moscow, a longtime ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, began launching airstrikes in Syria this week, adding another layer of tension over the war. The Syrian army had already been joined by Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah militia. The United States, which opposes Assad and is firing its own airstrikes against extremists in Syria, has questioned Moscow’s assertion that it is targeting Islamic terrorists there, saying the areas hit close to Homs are strongholds of the Syrian opposition to Assad.
Allies in the US-led coalition have called on Russia to cease attacks on opposition forces and to focus on fighting Islamic State militants. He pledged to continue the war against “terror” while also committing to a political track to end Syria’s civil war, which is now in its fifth year and has killed more than a quarter of a million people. An estimated 4 million people have fled. Al-Moallem also said that his country’s army “is capable of cleansing the country of those terrorists” and warned about the threat of a growing “caliphate state, which as you know, will not be limited to Syria or Iraq.” Al-Moallem announced Syria will participate in UN-led working groups toward a third round of peace talks in Geneva.
The UN’s envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has proposed four working groups on Syria as part of his latest efforts to bring Syria’s parties together toward a long-elusive agreement to end the conflict. The groups are to hold simultaneous discussions among Syrian parties on issues such as protection of civilians, combatting terrorism and political issues. Al-Moallem stressed that the working groups proposed de Mistura are non-binding.
The foreign minister described them as “brainstorming” sessions meant to prepare for the launch of new peace talks sometime in the future. But he added: “How can we ask the Syrian people to head to the ballot box while they are not safe in the streets?” World leaders also tried to address the crises in Libya and Yemen with high-level meetings on Friday. US Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Libya’s two rival governments to come together and make the final step toward a peace deal.