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Diplomatic Tension Rises Over Syria Strikes

  • RFE/RL

A boy carries bread in the Syrian city of Latamneh, which was reportedly hit two days ago by Russian air strikes.

A boy carries bread in the Syrian city of Latamneh, which was reportedly hit two days ago by Russian air strikes.

Russia says it has launched a third day of air strikes in Syria and hit 12 Islamic State (IS) targets as diplomatic tension continues to mount over the aims of Moscow's moves in that war-torn country.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov told Russian news agency that Russia’s air force carried out 14 flights in Syria on October 2 and delivered six strikes on IS objects.

He said Su-34, Su-24M, and Su-25 airplanes had taken part in the flights and that an IS military operations center in the Idlib province had been destroyed in the raids.

A Russian Defense Ministry statement said earlier that the warplanes hit a command post and a communications center in the province of Aleppo as well as a militant field camp in Idlib.

The ministry also said a command post in the province of Hama was also completely destroyed.

But the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict with a network of sources on the ground, said the radical militant IS group had no presence in the areas that were struck.

Moscow has repeatedly claimed since a Russian deployment of troops and equipment in Syria began last month that its aim is to defeat terrorism.

But its insistence on working with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and early air strikes seemingly targeting anti-Assad fighters -- and not IS positions, according to Washington -- have underscored fears that Russia's primary goal is to keep Assad in power.

Turkey and its partners in the U.S.-led coalition against IS have called on Russia to stop targeting the Syrian opposition with its air strikes and focus on fighting IS- and Al-Qaeda-linked militants.

The appeal came in a statement issued on October 2 by Turkey along with the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Gulf Arab allies.

In it, those countries express "deep concern" over Moscow's two-day-old bombardment campaign in Syria, arguing they represent a "further escalation" of the conflict and will only fuel more extremism.

Moscow’s permanent envoy to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, said on Russia state television on October 2 that he has “major suspicions about how and for what purpose this message has appeared” and cast doubt on whether it indeed came from the Turkish Foreign Ministry.

However, the statement has been posted on the Turkish Foreign Ministry's website.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in a conference call that Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed to French President Francois Hollande in Paris on October 2 that Moscow’s actions in Syria are in line with international law and aimed at battling terrorism.

Peskov spoke after the leaders met for four-way talks on the Ukraine conflict that also included German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

Hollande said he told Putin that Russia's bombing campaign should "only hit" Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda militants.

Speaking alongside the French president, Merkel said: "Both of us insisted on the fact that IS is the enemy that we should be fighting."

Speaking before the multilateral meeting, Hollande said France's other conditions for cooperation are that Moscow ensure the safety of civilians and work for a political transition that envisages the departure of Assad.

Meanwhile, the head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia's State Duma, Aleksei Pushkov, says the Kremlin estimates its air strike campaign in Syria could last three to four months.

Pushkov also told French radio on October 2 that the Russian bombardment would intensify.

Both Paris and Washington have cast doubts on Moscow's claim to be exclusively targeting IS.

The U.S. White House called Russian air strikes in Syria "indiscriminate military operations against the Syrian opposition."

That came as Russia reportedly hit a camp run by rebels trained by the CIA on October 1, the second day of its air strike campaign.

U.S. and Russian military officials held an hourlong videoconference call on October 1 discuss how to keep their respective militaries apart -- dubbed "deconflicting" -- in Syria as they carry out parallel air campaigns with competing objectives.

The Associated Press on October 2 cited U.S. officials as saying that amid the Russian air campaign, the Pentagon is weighing whether to use military force to protect Syrian rebels trained and equipped by Washington.

U.S. officials are concerned about potentially being drawn into a proxy war by protecting U.S.-backed rebels from Russian bombing missions, the AP reported.

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told media that "both sides agreed to consider the proposals and provide feedback in the coming days."

WATCH: Russia Releases Gun-Camera Video Of Syrian Air Strikes

Addressing the United Nations on October 2, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem called Assad’s military “the only force in Syria that is combating terrorism” and that air strikes targeting militants are useless if they are not coordinated with Damascus.

"Terrorism cannot be fought only from the air, and all of the previous operations to combat it have only served its spread and outbreak," Moualem told the United Nations General Assembly.

He said Syria would participate in UN talks aimed at starting formal negotiations on a deal to end the war, adding that he understood the talks, proposed by UN envoy Staffan de Mistura, to be non-binding and "mainly to exchange ideas."

Meanwhile, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi says that he would "welcome" air strikes by Russia in his country if Moscow made such a proposal, but that hasn't happened yet.

Abadi told France 24 television in an interview made available October 1: "If we get the offer, we [will] consider it. In actual fact, I would welcome it." He noted that he has been in contact with Putin.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on October 1 that Russia has no plans to extend air strikes to Iraq, but would do so if Iraq invited it.

The United States and its allies have suggested Assad, who has ruthlessly punished disloyalty throughout a four-year civil war that has killed more than 250,000 people and displaced at least 10 million more, must step down as part of any negotiated peace.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP
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