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Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Russia confirms first airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria

Russia confirms first airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria
Russia said it launched air strikes against Islamic State group in Syria on Wednesday after President Vladimir Putin secured his parliament’s unanimous backing to intervene to prop up the Kremlin’s closest Middle East ally.

Moscow gave Washington just an hour’s notice of the strikes, which set in train Russia’s biggest play in the region since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, a U.S. official said.

Targets in the Homs area appeared to have been struck, but not areas held by Islamic State, the U.S. official said.

The Russian Defence Ministry said however that its attacks were directed at Islamic State military targets.

Putin said the only way to fight “terrorists” in Syria was to act preemptively. Russia’s military involvement in the Middle East would only involve its air force and would be temporary.

The Homs area is crucial to President Bashar al-Assad’s control of western Syria. Insurgent control of that area would bisect the Assad-held west, separating Damascus from the coastal cities of Latakia and Tartous, where Russia operates a naval facility.

A U.S.-led coalition has already been bombing Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but Putin derided U.S. efforts to end the Syria war at the United Nations on Monday, suggesting a broader and more coordinated coalition was needed to defeat the militants.

“The military aim of our operations will be exclusively to provide air support to Syrian government forces in their struggle against ISIS (Islamic State),” Sergei Ivanov, the Kremlin’s Chief-of-Staff, said before reports that the strikes had begun.

Russia has been steadily dispatching more and more military aircraft to a base in Latakia, regarded as an Assad stronghold, after the Syrian government suffered a series of battlefield reverses.

Military experts

Moscow has already sent military experts to a recently established command centre in Baghdad which is coordinating air strikes and ground troops in Syria, a Russian official told Reuters.

Ivanov, the Kremlin’s Chief of Staff, said Russia’s missions would be limited and not open-ended. He precluded the use of ground troops.

“As our president has already said, the use of ground troops has been ruled out,” said Ivanov.

Russia’s involvement in Syria will be a further challenge for Moscow, which is already intervening in Ukraine at a time when its own economy is suffering from low oil prices and Western sanctions.

Opinion polls also show Russian voters have little appetite for a long campaign, with painful memories of the Soviet Union’s 1979-89 intervention in Afghanistan, in which thousands of Soviet troops were killed, still fresh.

But as Russian real incomes fall for the first time since Putin came to power, the spectacle of the country flexing its military muscles overseas, could also be a useful distraction for the Kremlin.

Ivanov said the upper house of parliament had backed military action by 162 votes to zero after Assad had asked for Russian military assistance.

The Syrian presidency confirmed that in a statement, saying Assad had written to Putin and Russia was increasing its military support as a direct result of that appeal.

Ivanov said Russia was only acting to protect its own interests in Syria, where it maintains a Soviet-era naval facility at Tartous, its only access to the Mediterranean.

“We’re talking specifically about Syria and we are not talking about achieving foreign policy goals or about satisfying our ambitions ... but exclusively about the national interests of the Russian Federation,” said Ivanov....

 france24.com by Reuters
30/9/15

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