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Russia steps up Syria attacks; Obama says Putin wrong on Syria

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DAMASCUS, Syria, Oct 3, (Agencies): Russian warplanes have attacked the Islamic State group and other insurgents in central and northern Syria with a wave of new airstrikes, Syrian and Russian military officials said Saturday as an activist group said Russia’s air raids have killed 39 civilians over the three past days.

The new airstrikes came as residents of Syria’s central regions fear the Russians are paving the way for a ground offensive by the government on several towns in the central province of Hama and the northwestern region of Idlib – where the Syrian army suffered major setbacks over the past months, activists said. Russian military spokesman Maj Gen Igor Konashenkov said the warplanes flew 20 missions in Syria over the past day, hitting nine IS targets.

He said an IS command post and a weapons storage bunker were destroyed in the area of Raqqa, the extremists’ de facto capital. Col Gen Andrei Kartapolov, a top official in the Russian military’s general staff, said Russian pilots had flown more than 60 sorties since Sept 30, targeting IS command posts, ammunition storehouses and weapons-production factories. “Our intelligence has determined that the militants are leaving the areas they control.

Panic and desertion have begun in their ranks,” Kartapolov said in a briefing transcript posted on the Defense Ministry’s Facebook page. “We will not only continue attacks by our airplanes, but will increase their intensity.” In Damascus, an unnamed Syrian military official was quoted by state TV as saying that the “concentrated and precise” airstrikes destroyed a command center in the central town of Latamneh in Hama province and targeted positions in the northwestern areas of Jisr al-Shughour and Maaret al-Numan. Konashenkov said equipment and weapons storage facilities were destroyed in a strike near Jisr al-Shughour and an ammunition depot was destroyed in Maaret al-Numan.

The IS group has no presence in the northwestern province of Idlib, which includes Jisr al-Shughour and Maaret al-Numan. The Russian airstrikes that began Wednesday have mainly targeted central and northwestern Syria, strategic regions that are the gateway to President Bashar Assad’s strongholds in the capital, Damascus, and along the Mediterranean coast.

Russia says it is targeting the IS group and al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, but at least some of the strikes appear to have hit Western-backed rebel factions. Later Saturday the Britainbased Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said warplanes believed to be Russian attacked the central town of Hobeit in Idlib province.

Russia is backing “butcher” President Bashar al-Assad with airstrikes that are often not aimed at Islamic State (IS) fighters in Syria, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron said Saturday. Cameron said Russian forces were “making the situation worse” as they pressed a bombing campaign in the IS stronghold for a fourth day.

His comments came as British intelligence forces observed that only one in 20 Russian airstrikes were hitting IS targets, according to Britain’s defence minister. “It’s absolutely clear that Russia is not discriminating between ISIL and the legitimate Syrian opposition groups and, as a result, they are actually backing the butcher Assad and helping him and really making the situation worse,” said Cameron, using an alternative acronym for IS. “They have been condemned across the Arab world for what they have done and I think the Arab world is right about that.” Repeating calls for regime change in Syria, the British prime minister added: “We should be using this moment now to try to force forward a comprehensive plan to bring political transition… because that is the answer for bringing peace to the region.” Cameron’s comments, delivered ahead of his Conservative Party’s annual conference in Manchester, northern England, echo those of his defence minister, Michael Fallon, published Saturday in the Sun newspaper British intelligence services observed that only five percent of Russian air strikes had attacked the IS group, with most “killing civilians” and Free Syrian forces fighting Assad, Fallon told the tabloid.

He said that Russia’s intervention had further “complicated” the crisis, while suggesting that Britain should extend its own bombing campaign — currently only operational against IS in Iraq — to Syria. “We’re analysing where the strikes are going every morning,” he told the paper. “The vast majority are not against IS at all.” The United States has also accused the Kremlin of trying to buttress Assad, with President Barack Obama describing the airstrikes that began Wednesday as “a recipe for disaster”. Obama on Friday vehemently rejected Russia’s military actions in Syria as selfdefeating and dismissed the idea that Moscow was strengthening its hand in the region. He vowed not to let the conflict become a US-Russia “proxy war.”

At a White House news conference, Obama pledged to stay the course with his strategy of supporting moderate rebels who oppose Syrian President Bashar Assad, but he dodged questions about whether the US would protect them if they came under Russian attack.

Russia’s dramatic entry into the Syrian civil war, after a year of airstrikes by the US and its coalition partners, has raised the specter of dangerous confrontations in the skies over Syria. And it prompted a question at the news conference as to whether Putin was outfoxing the US at a time when the American-led military campaign in Syria has failed to weaken the Islamic State. Obama dismissed that idea with an expression of disdain. “This is not a smart strategic move on Russia’s part,” he said, referring to Putin’s decision to “double down” on his support for Assad by stationing warplanes, air defenses, tanks and troops in Syria. Moscow says it is targeting Islamic State forces and fighting terrorism, but US leaders are skeptical of that and Obama said the Russian president has overplayed his hand. “It’s only strengthening ISIL, and that’s not good for anybody,” Obama contended.

He said he hoped Putin would come to realize that allying Russia with Iran to try to keep Assad in power “is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire, and it won’t work. And they will be there for a while if they don’t take a different course.” Obama said Putin has stepped deeper into a conflict that cannot be solved by military power alone, and that his approach is misguided in not distinguishing between Syrian rebels who want Assad ousted and those who are terrorists. “From their perspective they’re all terrorists, and that’s a recipe for disaster,” Obama said in his most extensive comments on the topic since Russia began its airstrikes on Monday. Evoking the Cold War era of US and Soviet forces working behind the scenes to prop up client states, Obama added, “We’re not going to make Syria into a proxy war between the United States and Russia.”

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