Russia defends air strikes as Iran prepares for ground attack
Russian President Vladimir Putin Thursday rejected media reports that their planes are targeting civilians or non-Islamic State insurgents in Syria, Russian agencies report.
He said claims that Russian jets killed civilians in Syria emerged before their war planes launched first attacks Wednesday.
He described such reports as “information attacks.”
Other nations have been bombing Syrian territory for over a year, he told the Russian human rights council, stressing that the US-led coalition invades Syrian airspace with no UN mandate or invitation from Damascus.
“We have such an invitation and we intend to fight against terrorist organizations and them only,” Putin added.
On Thursday, the Russian Defense Ministry reported hitting 12 targets belonging to the IS terrorist group since starting military action in Syria. The effort is designed to provide air support to the Syria army, which is struggling to contain the spread of jihadist militants in the war-torn country.
The Russian Air Force overnight destroyed a terrorist headquarters and arms depot in Syria’s northwestern Idlib region during air strikes aimed at IS.
A militant three-level fortified command point in the region of Hama in west-central Syria was also bombed.
During the air strikes, a factory where IS terrorists loaded cars with explosives was destroyed.
More than 50 Russian Air Force planes and helicopters are involved in air strikes against Islamic State positions in Syria, the ministry said.
Russia is only carrying out air strikes outside the populated areas in Syria.
It actively uses space reconnaissance and drones in Syria to gain information on the whereabouts of Islamic State fighters, the ministry added..
‘Pouring gasoline on a fire’
On Wednesday, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter termed Russia’s launching the air strikes as “tantamount to pouring gasoline on a fire.”
The first wave of air strikes, Carter said, appeared to have struck areas where there were no IS forces.
He said Russia states an intent to fight IS on the one hand, and to support embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime, on the other.
A US defense official said: “We have not seen any strikes against IS, what we have seen is strikes against Syrian opposition,” the official said.
New level of devastation
Syrians living in rebel-held areas of Homs province said Russian jets unleashed a whole new level of devastation on their towns Wednesday.
“We have been exposed to a wide range of weapons over the last five years, but what happened today was absolutely the most violent and ferocious, and the most comprehensive in the northern Homs countryside,” said a doctor in the town of Rastan, speaking from one of the areas targeted by the jets.
“As I speak to you now, the mosque minarets are warning of planes in the sky and that gatherings of people should disperse,” he said, declining to be named out of fear for his safety.
Iranian troops arrive
Hundreds of Iranian troops have arrived in Syria in the last 10 days and will soon join government forces and their Lebanese Hezbollah allies in a major ground offensive backed by Russian air strikes, two Lebanese sources told Reuters.
“The (Russian) air strikes will in the near future be accompanied by ground advances by the Syrian army and its allies,” said one of the sources familiar with political and military developments in the conflict.
“It is possible that the coming land operations will be focused in the Idlib and Hama countryside,” the source added.
The two sources said the operation would be aimed at recapturing territory lost by President Bashar al-Assad’s government to rebels.
It points to an emerging military alliance between Russia and Assad’s other main allies – Iran and Hezbollah – focused on recapturing areas of northwestern Syria that were seized by insurgents in rapid advances earlier this year.
“The vanguard of Iranian ground forces began arriving in Syria: soldiers and officers specifically to participate in this battle. They are not advisors … we mean hundreds with equipment and weapons. They will be followed by more,” the second source said.
Iraqis would also take part in the operation, the source said.