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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Russia begins Syria air strikes as war enters volatile new phase

Wed Sep 30, 2015 | 4:00 PM EDT 2:26 PM EDT | 00:46 Russia releases video of air strikes in Syria Russia begins Syria air strikes as war enters...X By Andrew Osborn and Phil Stewart MOSCOW/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Russia launched air strikes in Syria on Wednesday in the Kremlin's biggest Middle East intervention in decades, but Moscow's assertion that it had hit Islamic State was immediately disputed by the United States and rebels on the ground. The air strikes plunged the four-year-old civil war in Syria into a volatile new phase as President Vladimir Putin moved forcefully to assert Russian influence in the unstable region. The attacks also raised the dangerous specter of Washington and Moscow running air strikes concurrently and in the same region, but without coordination. U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said he had directed U.S. military officials to meet with their Russian counterparts "as soon as possible" to discuss ways to make sure they do not come into conflict. The United States said a Russian official in Baghdad warned it to keep American aircraft that have been pressing a daily bombing campaign against Islamic State positions to stay out of Syrian airspace during Moscow's air strikes. But the United States continued its air operations, saying it targeted Islamic State near the Syrian city of Aleppo. Putin said he was striking against Islamic State and helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, long Russia's closest ally in the region, in this aim. But Washington is concerned that Moscow is more interested in propping up Assad, who the United States has long held should leave office, than in beating Islamic State. Assad's opponents in the brutal civil war include rebel groups that oppose both him and Islamic State and that are supported by the United States and other Western countries. The Russian defense ministry said it carried out about 20 flights over Syria, hitting eight Islamic State targets and destroying an Islamic State command post and an operations center in a mountainous area, Russian agencies reported. Syrians living in rebel-held areas of Homs province said the violence unleashed by the Russian air force unleashed a whole new level of devastation on their towns. Jets flying at higher altitudes than the Syrian air force emitted no noise to alert the people below to raids reported to have killed at least 33 civilians, including children. Moscow's intervention means the conflict in Syria has been transformed in a few months from a proxy war, in which outside powers were arming and training mostly Syrians to fight each other, to an international conflict in which the world’s main military powers except China are directly involved in fighting. Russia joined the United States and its Arab allies, Turkey, France, Iran and Israel in direct intervention, with Britain expected to join soon, if it gets parliamentary approval. Carter said of the strikes, "It does appear that they were in areas where there probably were not ISIL forces, and that is precisely one of the problems with this whole approach." ISIL is one of the acronyms for Islamic State, which has seized control of large areas of Syria and Iraq over the past year. Notice of the attack came from a Russian official in Baghdad who asked the United States to avoid Syrian airspace during the mission, U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said. DANGER IN THE SKIES Russia, U.S. face off at U.N. over parallel Syria air campaigns Russian air strikes unleash new devastation in Syrian region, say residents Moscow's move meant that warplanes from both the United States and Russia will be sharing the skies above Syria. "In this heated situation there is a great danger of further misunderstandings," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said at the United Nations. Reflecting growing tension between the big powers, U.S. Secretary John Kerry phoned his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov early on Wednesday to tell him the United States regarded the strikes as dangerous, a U.S. official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Russia was moving to "ramp up" support for Assad, adding, "They've made a significant military investment now in further popping him up." Earnest called it "an indication of how concerned they are about losing influence in the one client state that they have in the Middle East." At least 200,000 people have been killed and millions driven from their homes since the civil war began in 2011 when Assad's forces moved to crush peaceful protests against his family's four-decade rule. ==================== Thu Oct 1, 2015 | 9:23 AM EDT Assad allies, including Iranians, prepare ground attack in Syria: sources Syria's President Bashar al-Assad answers questions during an interview with al-Manar's journalist Amro Nassef, in Damascus, Syria, in this handout photograph released by Syria's national news agency SANA on August 25, 2015. REUTERS/SANA/Handout via Reuters Syria's President Bashar al-Assad answers questions during an interview with al-Manar's journalist Amro Nassef, in Damascus, Syria, in this handout photograph released by Syria's national news agency SANA on August 25, 2015. Reuters/SANA/Handout via Reuters Assad allies, including Iranians, prepare ground. By Laila Bassam BEIRUT (Reuters) - 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. Thus far, direct Iranian military support for Assad has come mostly in the form of military advisors. Iran has also mobilized Shi'ite militia fighters, including Iraqis and some Afghans, to fight alongside Syrian government forces. Lebanon's Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, has been fighting alongside the Syrian army since early in the conflict. The Russian air force began air strikes in Syria on Wednesday, targeting areas near the cities of Homs and Hama in the west of the country, where Assad's forces are fighting an array of insurgent groups, though not Islamic State, which is based mostly in the north and east. An alliance of insurgent groups including the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and powerful Ahrar al-Sham made rapid gains in Idlib province earlier this year, completely expelling the government from the area bordering Turkey. (Reporting by Laila Bassam; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Samia Nakhoul and Peter Graff) ============================================

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