TBR NEWS October 2, 2015

Oct 02 2015

The Voice of the White House

Washington, D.C. October 2, 2015: “I am vastly amused by the business in Syria. Putin’s military are attacking Syrian rebels and killing them. Unfortunately, these are CIA-trained rebels and Washington is livid with rage. And if the Russians achieve their goal of a régime change in Saudi Arabia, there will be a reduction in American oil and even more futile fury. I suppose we can declare war on South Sudan and feel better for it. And then there is the possible huge oil deposits in the Arctic. Most of these lie under Russian territory and try as the US wants, they cannot get at it. Rather than buy oil and gas from Russia, how much better, and typical, to merely seize it by force. This is a bit like threatening an angry tiger with a marshmallow.”



Russia establishes seaborne lifeline for Syrian allies

September 29, 2015

by Maria Tsvetkova, Gleb Stolyarov and Jonathan Saul



LONDON- The Alexandr Tkachenko, an ageing ferry with a canary-yellow hull, usually carries people across the Kerch Strait, a bustling sea route and the only connection between Russia and Crimea, the peninsula Moscow annexed from Ukraine last year.

But the crossings stopped abruptly in late August when the Russian government chartered the ship, according to an employee at the ferry company. It was destined for another mission of possibly greater strategic importance – expanding Russia’s supply line to areas held by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

On September 11 – as reports were emerging of increasing Russian military activity in Syria – the ferry docked at the port of Tartous, maritime data showed, an area still controlled by Assad and where Russia leases a naval base. On its way it had stopped off at the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk, where it took on board white-painted trucks, a port source said.

The ship’s journey – pieced together using port arrivals data, Reuters data and information from a maritime intelligence source – is one part of a sharp increase in sea traffic between Russia and Syria, where Kremlin ally Assad has suffered sharp reversals in his fight to stay in power.

Reuters was not able to confirm what was in the trucks or whether they left the ship at Tartous.

The Russian defense ministry did not respond to written questions from Reuters about whether it had chartered the vessel. Russia’s ministry of emergencies, which oversees foreign and humanitarian aid, said it knew nothing of the shipment.


U.S. officials and military and rebel sources inside Syria say the Russian military has been increasing its presence in Assad-controlled areas. Washington has suggested that Russia may be preparing an airfield near the port city of Latakia, a stronghold of Assad, just north of Tartous.

While the Kremlin has not acknowledged any military build-up, publicly-available ship tracking data show an increase in shipping traffic between the two countries, more voyages than can be explained by the usual pattern of trade.

Cargo traffic to Tartous from Novorossiisk had averaged about one vessel a month in the period from September 2014 to September 2015, for example. Prior to August, only one ship from Novorossiisk had called at Latakia, another Syrian port up the coast from Tartous, in 2014-2015.

But in the period from September 9 to September 24, at least six cargo vessels that set out from Novorossiisk called at either Tartous or Latakia, both of which are in Syrian government-controlled territory, the data showed.


The Aleksandr Tkachenko was one of those vessels.

Crimea-based logistics company, SMT-K, which had been using the ship as a ferry across the Kerch Strait since March said its crossings stopped at the end of August. An employee who answered the phone at the company’s office said the Russian government had chartered the ship. The employee declined to give his name.

The vessel was next spotted in Novorossiisk, a short distance away on the Black Sea. It docked there on September 1, according to tracking data. A Novorossiisk port employee said he was involved in loading the Alexander Tkachenko, and a second ship, with white trucks which were to be shipped to Syria.

Shipping databases list the registered owner of the Alexandr Tkachenko as Moscow-based firm Koksokhimtrans Ltd.

Calls to a number listed for Koksokhimtrans went through to a company called Sovfrakht-Sovmortrans. One person who answered the telephone said he did not know who owned the vessel. Koksokhimtrans was part of the Sovfrakht-Sovmortrans group, this person said. That account was disputed by the manager responsible for Sovfrakht-Sovmortrans’ vessels, Ivan Okorokov. He said Koksokhimtrans was not part of Sovfrakht-Sovmortrans.

(Additional reporting by Polina Devitt, Daria Korsunskaya; editing by Anna Willard and Janet McBride)


Russian Involvement and a Redirection of Policy on Syria

September 20, 2015

by Paul R. Pillar

The National Interest

The recently increased Russian involvement in Syria ought to be viewed as an opportunity, more so than as a threat or as something that needs to be countered. Although Moscow’s current involvement is only an extension of its longtime relationship with the Syrian regime, it represents just enough of a change to serve as the closest thing we are likely to have to a peg on which to hang some needed rethinking about the Syrian conflict. The need for such rethinking is reflected in the fact that everyone, including the Obama administration, seems to recognize that the current trajectory of this civil war is unpropitious, notwithstanding disagreements over what to do about the situation.

The most important principle in any revision of policy toward the war needs to be that the untoward effects of this war will be ameliorated only insofar as peace is established in Syria, or as close as Syrians and the international community can come to establishing something passing for peace. It is the continuation of the war, much more than any particular outcome of the war or any particular political configuration of Syria, that is the source of most of the trouble that is worth worrying about.

This is true of at least three major types of trouble. One is the possible spread, quite possibly inadvertent, of instability and combat beyond Syria’s borders. The war has, for example, increased the chance of a new war between Israel and Lebanese Hezbollah, given Hezbollah’s substantial involvement in the Syrian war and Israel’s reactions to Hezbollah activity in Syria.

A second problem is the increase in violent extremism, as represented chiefly but not entirely by the so-called Islamic State or ISIS. It was the outbreak of the Syria war that enabled ISIS to spread its activity, suddenly and significantly, beyond its birthplace in Iraq. This should not be surprising; physical chaos and power vacuums have long been favorable ground for terrorist and other extremist groups.

A third problem, which has become the chief crisis of the day for Europe as well as an issue for the United States, is the surge of migrants fleeing the war for the West.

The needed focus on tamping down the war, rather than trying to tilt the outcome of it at the risk of further escalation, requires getting away from at least three unhelpful patterns of thought that have prevailed in discussion and debate about Syria. One is the dictum that “Assad must go.” Note that the aforementioned varieties of trouble stem not from the mere existence of the Assad regime but instead from the war that emerged from confrontation between the regime and its opponents. That is true of any spillover of armed conflict across international borders. It is true also of the expansion of ISIS outside Iraq, which occurred only after the Syrian war got under way. And it certainly is true of the migration of refugees. However much the migrants coming from Syria may have disliked the regime, it was only the physical danger and disruption of war that motivated any significant numbers of them to undertake perilous journeys to Europe.

The Assad regime certainly has many undesirable and even despicable characteristics—but so do many other regimes elsewhere in the world, and despicability alone is not grounds for escalating an internal war to try to influence the result. We also should note that some of the most despicable things this regime has been doing are, again, part of the war itself and do not predate the war. Before the war began, the regime was not indiscriminately barrel-bombing civilian neighborhoods.

Those who are especially solicitous about Israel should also note that Israel had enjoyed decades of relative stability along the Golan front with the devil the Israelis know, the Assad regime. It is only with the war in Syria and the loss of regime control of parts of that front that significant and immediate security questions related to Syria have more recently arisen for Israel.

The perpetuation of the Assad-must-go mentality is rooted in notions, found most conspicuously in neoconservative and liberal interventionist thinking, about democratization and liberalization being one-way processes and likely to result from any stirring of a political pot. This thinking has come to be applied especially to the Middle East because of the vain hopes attached to the neocon project known as the Iraq War and because of more broadly held hopes of what would come from the Arab Spring. Another root, given the alliance between Damascus and Tehran, is the idea that anything associated with Iran must be bad. Neither of these roots provides a realistic basis for formulating policy toward the Syrian war.

The one respect in which one could plausibly argue that the very character of the Assad regime is a basis for instability and the border-crossing consequences that can result from it is that the sort of authoritarian rule the regime represents will never be the foundation for political consensus in the way that Western liberal democracies know it. But that is a long-term consideration. Right now there is a fire to be contained; discussion of what sort of political arrangements might be kindling for fires in the future is, for the time being, a digression.

Probably the one possible development that is most likely to make the chaotic Syrian situation even more chaotic, as some members of the U.S. Congress evidently have come to recognize, would be a collapse of the regime with an ensuing political and administrative vacuum. A similar recognition may underlie recent comments from the Obama administration suggesting that, although the administration cannot bring itself to abandon the Assad-must-go formulation, the timing of his departure is negotiable.

Another unhelpful pattern has been persistence of the unfounded faith in developing a “moderate” opposition with enough unity and armed clout to be the nucleus of a force that would defeat both the regime and ISIS. If earlier events had not been enough to do away with that faith, then surely it ought to be dispelled by the embarrassing acknowledgment the other day by the top U.S. military commander for the region that the number of fighters that the United States has been able to put into the fray for this purpose can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The reason for this result is not perverse foot-dragging by the administration. One reason for it is the unresolved tension between the objectives of fighting the regime and fighting ISIS. Another reason is the inherent difficulty of vetting “moderates” amid a civil war, the waging of which is an inherently immoderate act. (And if some fighter who had passed through a U.S.-supported vetting, training, and equipping program were later, say, to be involved in a terrorist attack against a U.S. target, some U.S. critics pushing now to expand such programs more rapidly would not hesitate to lambaste the administration for that terrorist result.) Assertions of a woulda coulda shoulda variety, as one finds in the incessant drum-beating about Syria by the Washington Post editorial page, that if only a program to develop a moderate force had been implemented earlier with more gusto the result today would be better, is cheap talk that is unsubstantiated either by the experience of either this civil war or other ones.

With the latest Russian moves another unhelpful thought pattern comes into play, which is the tendency to view any Russian activism or extension of influence abroad as undesirable and something to be countered. This tendency is firmly rooted in old Cold War habits and has infused much thinking about other matters involving Russia, including in Europe. A corrective to this tendency, as far as the Middle East is concerned, is to reflect on how vastly different the Cold War circumstances were from what prevails today. Beginning with the financing of the Aswan high dam in the 1950s, the USSR was making major inroads in the Middle East, not only in Syria but in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, South Yemen, and elsewhere. The Soviet activity had implications for strategic postures as well the global ideological competition. That activity was worth worrying about, and worth countering. But today Russia is not a superpower, there is not a global ideological competition with Moscow, and the Russian presence in Syria pales in comparison with the much broader U.S. posture, including military posture, in the Middle East.

There has been much speculation about Vladimir Putin’s motives underlying the latest Russian moves in Syria. Of course we should not necessarily take what his government says at face value, and of course not all of the Russian motives are congruent with U.S. interests. But the situation regarding Syria is not zero-sum, and the United States needs to be open to ways in which the Russian posture, even with underlying motives divergent from our own, may help to bring closer possibilities for ameliorating the Syrian mess.

One thing that enhanced Russian involvement in Syria means is that Russia will be absorbing more of costs, and more of the opprobrium associated with collateral damage, from efforts that involve at least in part the containment of ISIS. To the extent this shifts some of a burden from the United States, that is a good thing. Russian aims are surely not purely anti-ISIS aims, but Russia has at least as much reason to worry about the group as the United States does. The United States has no equivalent to the concentrated, predominantly Muslim populations of the North Caucasus.

Another thing the Russian involvement means is that Moscow, to limit the extent and duration of its own costs, has that much more of a stake in stabilizing Syria and in tamping down the conflict sooner rather than later. A further implication is that greater Russian support for the Assad regime may yield greater Russian leverage over that regime with regard to any moves toward peace.

An overall conclusion is that the Russian moves mark an appropriate occasion for U.S. policy toward Syria to pivot away from feckless attempts to engineer a particular military outcome on the ground and toward greater emphasis on multilateral diplomacy aimed at finding a political resolution of the conflict. Russia will necessarily be heavily involved in any such effort. Talks between U.S. and Russian defense ministers for purposes of military deconfliction on the ground are fine, but talks between the foreign ministers will be even more important. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran also will necessarily be fully involved. None of this implies that the prospects for a political resolution of this war any time soon, even apart from the ISIS problem, are very bright; they aren’t. The apparent intractability of some of the positions taken by rebel groups, even as they accept in principle a political solution, are discouraging. But exploring every opportunity for diminishing the current fire in Syria is more likely to ameliorate the problems this conflict has caused than will adding more fuel to the fire.


Saudi royal calls for regime change in Riyadh

Plea by grandson of state’s founder comes as falling oil prices, war in Yemen and loss of faith in authority buffet leadership of King Salman

September 28, 2015

by Hugh Miles in Cairo

The Guardian

A senior Saudi prince has launched an unprecedented call for change in the country’s leadership, as it faces its biggest challenge in years in the form of war, plummeting oil prices and criticism of its management of Mecca, scene of last week’s hajj tragedy.

The prince, one of the grandsons of the state’s founder, Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, has told the Guardian that there is disquiet among the royal family – and among the wider public – at the leadership of King Salman, who acceded the throne in January.

The prince, who is not named for security reasons, wrote two letters earlier this month calling for the king to be removed.

“The king is not in a stable condition and in reality the son of the king [Mohammed bin Salman] is ruling the kingdom,” the prince said. “So four or possibly five of my uncles will meet soon to discuss the letters. They are making a plan with a lot of nephews and that will open the door. A lot of the second generation is very anxious.”

“The public are also pushing this very hard, all kinds of people, tribal leaders,” the prince added. “They say you have to do this or the country will go to disaster.”

A clutch of factors are buffeting King Salman, his crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, and the deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

A double tragedy in Mecca – the collapse of a crane that killed more than 100, followed by a stampede last week that killed 700 – has raised questions not just about social issues, but also about royal stewardship of the holiest site in Islam.

As usual, the Saudi authorities have consistently shrugged off any suggestion that a senior member of the government may be responsible for anything that has gone wrong.

Local people, however, have made clear on social media and elsewhere that they no longer believe such claims.

“The people inside [the kingdom] know what’s going on but they can’t say. The problem is the corruption in using the resources of the country for building things in the right form,” said an activist who lives in Mecca but did not want to be named for fear of repercussions.

Unfortunately the government points the finger against the lower levels, saying for example: ‘Where are the ambulances? Where are the healthcare workers?’ They try to escape the real reason of such disaster,” he added.

Saudi religious and political legitimacy is predicated on their claim that they manage the holy sites properly and make them safely accessible for all Muslims. Since there are no monarchies in Islam and Saudi Arabia itself is not mentioned in the Qur’an, legitimacy is a fundamental issue for the Saudis and the Hajj disasters have been extremely damaging.

But just as urgent is oil, the price of which has dropped more than 50% in the past year. On Monday, the Financial Times reported that Saudi Arabia has withdrawn as much as $70bn (£46bn) from overseas investment funds to shore up its fiscal position in the face of tumbling oil prices

According to Alastair Newton, director of Alavan Business Advisory, Saudi Arabia’s published budget this year was based on oil trading at about $90 a barrel. But because of costly ad hoc items such as royal largesse after King Salman’s succession, the war in Yemen, and domestic security against the Isis threat, the fiscal position is only in balance at about $110.

With oil now trading below $50, fiscal weakness is starting to tell. The Saudi benchmark Tadawul All Share index has fallen by more than 30% in the past 12 months.

“They have enough reserves to sustain this situation for at least one year although it is very costly for them,” said Khairallah Khairallah, a former managing editor of the Saudi-owned al-Hayat newspaper.

The International Monetary Fund is already predicting Saudi Arabia’s budget deficit to exceed $107bn this year. Yet the budget announced for next year has marginally increased.

“The king is in charge of oil policy in the kingdom together with his son Mohammed bin Salman. Mohammed bin Salman is also responsible for [state oil firm] Aramco. The crown prince [Mohammed bin Nayef] is mainly focused on security. These are the main players in Saudi Arabia. They divide the responsibility,” said Khairallah Khairallah.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman is a new arrival to the Saudi senior leadership team but has already become one of the most controversial.

Although still very young by Saudi standards – officially 35 but rumoured to be much younger – he holds a multitude of posts including minister of defence and chair of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs, which is the country’s main economic policymaking committee.

This makes him responsible for many of Saudi Arabia’s problems, above all the war in neighbouring Yemen, where rebel Houthis have come under attack from Saudi aircraft and ground forces.

Many Saudis are sickened by the sight of the Arab world’s richest country pummelling its poorest, and as the cost in lives and treasure grows, criticism is mounting that Prince Mohammed bin Salman– whose unofficial nickname is “Reckless” – rushed in without a proper military strategy or an exit plan.

This is a war against the Yemeni nation and against Yemen becoming independent,” said Sgt Maj Dakheel bin Naser Al Qahtani, a former head of air force operations at King Abdulaziz airbase, Dhahran, who defected from the Saudi armed forces last year.

It has no legitimate political foundation and it is not what the people want,” he said. “Ninety per cent of people in Saudi Arabia don’t want this to happen, exactly the opposite of what the media shows.

It has come about due to the absence of a national citizens’ establishment in Saudi Arabia and because Al Saud have put their own interests ahead of the national interest.”

The letters in Arabic calling for the overthrow of the king have been read more than 2m times. The letters call on the 13 surviving sons of Ibn Saud – specifically the princes Talal, Turki and Ahmed bin Abdulaziz – to unite and remove the leadership in a palace coup, before choosing a new government from within the royal family.

Allow the oldest and most capable to take over the affairs of the state, let the new king and crown prince take allegiance from all, and cancel the strange, new rank of second deputy premier,” states the first letter.

We are calling for the sons of Ibn Saud from the oldest Bandar, to the youngest, Muqrin, to make an urgent meeting with the senior family members to investigate the situation and find out what can be done to save the country, to make changes in the important ranks, to bring in expertise from the ruling family whatever generation they are from.”

The letters are unlike anything that has happened since King Faisal deposed King Saud in a palace coup in 1964.

The prince behind the letters claims to have received widespread support from both within the royal family and society at large. But only one other senior royal has so far publicly endorsed the letter, which may be unsurprising given the Saudis’ brutal history of punishing political opponents.

Like many modern Arab countries Saudi Arabia is a 20th-century construction. Since 1932, when Saudi Arabia was founded, the royal family has kept the country together masterfully. But as the economic and political situation in and around Saudi Arabia deteriorates, and royal family infighting intensifies, the possibility of a profound change is growing more likely.



Assad allies, including Iranians, prepare ground attack in Syria: sources

October 1, 2015

by Laila Bassam



BEIRUT 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)

Russian Air Force in Syria deploying over 50 planes & choppers – Defense Ministry

October 1, 2015


Russia’s Air Force fleet in Syria includes over 50 warplanes and helicopters, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry said, reporting eight overnight sorties.

Previously Russia hadn’t revealed any detail of its contingent in Syria, which started an aerial campaign on Wednesday to help the Syrian Army fight against terrorist troops.

The air group was deployed on very short notice. It was possible because we had most of the materiel and ammunition ready at our depot in Tartus. We only had to move our aircraft and deliver some extra equipment,” spokesperson for the Russian Defense Ministry Igor Konashenkov told the media.

The fleet includes the latest Su-24M and Su-25 ground attack planes, he said.

The airstrikes on Wednesday night targeted four Islamic State facilities, Konashenkov said.

A terrorist HQ and an ammunition depot were destroyed near Idlib, as were a fortified three-level command center near Hama,” he said. “A direct bomb hit also completely destroyed a workshop north of Homs that produced explosives and ammunition,” he added, saying that at this workshop terrorists were stuffing vehicles with explosives. Those vehicles were then used to conduct terror attacks.

The night sorties raise the number of targets hit by Russia in Syria in the first 24 hours of the operation to 12.

“All the airstrikes are being conducted in coordination with the Syrian Army command. The Syrian Defense Ministry has deployed an operative group at the Hmaimim air base,” the Russian official said, referring to the airfield near near Basel al-Assad international airport south of Latakia, where the Russian forces are based.


US-backed Syrian rebels have been hit by Russian airstrikes

Commander of group that has received CIA training says camp in Idlib province was struck by about 20 missiles in two separate sorties

October 1, 2015

by Kareem Shaheen in Beirut and Matthew Weaver and Saeed Kamali Dehghan in London

The Guardian

US-backed rebels in Syria say they were hit by Russian airstrikes on Thursday, on the second day of Russia’s air campaign over the country.

The commander of the Liwa Suqour al-Jabal rebel group, which has received training by the CIA, says a training camp in Idlib province was struck by about 20 missiles in two separate sorties.

Hassan Haj Ali, a Syrian army captain who defected after the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, said some of the guards of the facility were slightly wounded in the attack.

Russia is challenging everyone and saying there is no alternative to Bashar,” he said.

The Russian defence ministry said its planes hit 12 Islamic State targets, including a command centre and two arms depots, although the areas where it said the strikes took place are not held by Isis.

Syrian activists reported a number of airstrikes in the country’s north and centre, including in the province of Hama, which they said hit locations controlled by another US-backed rebel group, Tajamu Alezzah.

Al Mayadeen, a Lebanese pro-Assad TV channel, separately reported that Russian aircraft had launched 30 fresh airstrikes against Jaysh al-Fateh, a powerful rebel coalition that includes Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Qaida affiliated al-Nusra Front.

Jaysh al-Fateh conquered much of north-west Syria in a major offensive this spring, including Jisr al-Shughour, ousting the Assad regime from the area and inching closer to its coastal stronghold of Latakia.

Activists in Homs also claimed that a Russian airstrike targeted a road near Talbiseh, a village that had been hit the day before.

In a dramatic escalation of the conflict, Russia launched a series of airstrikes on Wednesday that it said were aimed at Isis terrorists but which mainly appeared to hit less extreme groups fighting Assad’s regime.

On Thursday, the Russian line appeared to change, with a spokesman for Vladimir Putin saying that Russia was going after a list of groups in addition to Isis.

These organisations are well known and the targets are chosen in coordination with the armed forces of Syria,” the spokesman said, without giving names.

Syrian civil defence volunteers put the total civilian death toll from Wednesday’s strikes on Homs and Hama at 40, including eight children.

The volunteer group said thermobaric missiles were used and claimed that they struck a public market, bread distribution point and administrative buildings in Homs, as well as civilian homes.

We can’t believe an even more advanced military power has arrived in Syria to kill civilians,” said one civil defence volunteer in a statement issued by his organisation.

Syrian rebels launched attacks in northern Homs against Assad regime troops and pro-government civilian neighbourhoods using Grad rockets in what they said was retaliation for Russian airstrikes.

Videos posted by a conservative rebel coalition in northern Homs showed rebel fighters launching rockets and artillery.

Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, had earlier dismissed reports of targeting non-Isis positions, describing “the rumours” as unfounded.

Our targets are solely the positions of objects and equipment belonging to the armed terrorist group Isil [Isis],” Russia Today quoted Lavrov as saying.

Lavrov said Moscow had asked American officials to back up their accusations of Russia not targeting Isis with firm evidence. “They expressed doubt, arguing that there is evidence, which we asked [them] to show us, because we stand by our targets,” Lavrov said.

Talk began that civilians were hurt by airstrikes. We have no such data,” he said. “We carefully make sure that these target strikes are precise.”

The US defence secretary, Ashton Carter, described Wednesday’s strikes as “illogical” and “doomed to fail”, telling reporters: “It does appear that they [the Russian airstrikes] were in areas where there were not Isil forces and this is precisely one of the problems with this approach.”

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, suggested he was prepared to welcome Russian military action in Syria only if it was directed against Isis. Appearing alongside Lavrov after their UN meeting, he said: “It is one thing obviously to be targeting Isil. We’re concerned, obviously, that is not what is happening.”

Kerry and Lavrov agreed that Russian and US military commanders would set up “deconfliction” talks to try to ensure their air forces did not inadvertently clash while they conducted overlapping air campaigns.

Lavrov said Russian and US officials would soon “get in touch and establish channels of communications to avoid any unintended incidents”.

The US was informed of Russia’s plans to launch strikes on Syria an hour before they occurred. The Department of State spokesman John Kirby said a Russian official in Baghdad had told US embassy personnel that Russian military aircraft would shortly begin flying anti-Isis missions in Syria. The official also asked that US aircraft avoid Syrian airspace during those missions.

Although the Obama administration defiantly vowed to continue its own bombing operations in Syria – and took umbrage at Russia’s insistence on Wednesday that the US ground its aircraft – the US military revealed on Thursday that it launched only a single airstrike in the wake of the Russian campaign. The strike, in Mar’a, north of Aleppo, destroyed two Isis excavators, according to the US Central Command.

By contrast, on 30 September, the US launched 21 airstrikes in neighbouring Iraq.

Iran officially threw its weight behind the Russian campaign on Thursday. A foreign ministry spokeswoman quoted by the Irna state news agency said Moscow had her country’s full support in the strikes against what she described as terrorist groups.

Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival, and Turkey, which is at odds with Tehran over Assad’s fate, are unhappy about the Russian involvement. Iran has played an instrumental role in propping up Assad’s regime by supplying him with financial and military support. Syria was the only Arab country that supported Tehran during the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq in 1980s and the country is strategically located, giving Tehran an access route to its regional allies, particularly Hezbollah in Lebanon.


US-led coalition warns Russia it is fuelling extremism in Syria

Coalition expresses deep concerns about targets of Russian bombing campaign, as President Putin meets western leaders in Paris

October 2, 2015

by Shaun Walker in Moscow Ian Black in London and Kareem Shaheen in Beirut

The Guardian

Russian intervention in Syria to support Bashar al-Assad will escalate violence and fuel extremism and radicalisation, Vladimir Putin has been warned as more evidence emerges that Moscow is targeting anti-regime rebel groups and not just Islamic State fighters.

Before Putin’s talks in Paris with the French president, François Hollande, a statement on Friday by the US-led coalition fighting Isis expressed deep concern about attacks by the Russian air force on Hama, Homs and Idlib. The attacks did not hit the jihadi group but caused civilian casualties.

These military actions constitute a further escalation and will only fuel more extremism and radicalisation,” said the statement by France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the US and Britain. “We call on the Russian federation to immediately cease its attacks on the Syrian opposition and civilians and to focus its efforts on fighting Isil [Isis].”

At the meeting in Paris, Hollande said: “Russia’s position hasn’t changed, it has always been about support for Assad and his regime.”

Emphasising to the Russian president that they needed to try to find a political solution, the French leader told Putin that Russian airstrikes “should be against Isis and only Isis”.

During the meeting, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said: “We shouldn’t forget what has happened in Syria over the past year, hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives before the Islamic State appeared, and this was a result of what Assad did with his people.”

The US-led coalition announced meanwhile that its planes had targeted Isis in 28 airstrikes on Thursday in both Iraq and Syria. The UN said it had been unable to deliver humanitarian aid in support of a ceasefire agreement “due to the recent surge of military activity” – which diplomats said was a reference to the Russian bombing.

Amid heightened tensions on the third day of the Russian campaign, an unnamed senior official in Tehran denied a report that Iran was sending hundreds of troops to fight with the Syrian army – a move that would constitute a dramatic departure from Iran’s normally low-profile support for Assad.

It seemed likely the claim, attributed to sources in Iran’s Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, was intended to reinforce the impression of a powerful alliance backing Assad in the face of western and Arab demands he step down. Analysts have said they expect Syrian government forces to launch a new offensive in the wake of the Russian air campaign.

Syrian state media has been highlighting the “destructive capabilities” of new aircraft.

Moscow’s strategy appears to be to mainly attack central and north-western Syria, areas that form the gateway to Damascus and the coast. But Russian planes also bombed targets west of Raqqa, the capital of Isis’s self-proclaimed caliphate – apparently the first time likely Isis positions have been hit.

Alexei Pushkov, a top Russian foreign affairs official, told French radio he believed the air campaign could last about three to four months. He also hit out at western criticism, tweeting: “The US is criticising Russia for ‘lack of selectivity in our targets’ in Syria. So what stopped them from picking the right targets over a whole year, rather than just pointlessly bombing the desert?!”

Russian officials have denied claims that some of their airstrikes missed their targets and dismissed suggestions from the west that planes were mainly bombing rebel groups opposed to the Assad regime, rather than Isis. “The main target are the Daesh [Isis] groups situated closest to Damascus,” Pushkov insisted.

In fact, Russian targets include fighters who have received limited backing from the US as well as more hardline Islamist groups. The Russian defence ministry said its aircraft carried out 18 sorties in Syria in the past 24 hours, including 10 overnight.

The airstrikes primarily hit non-Isis rebel positions, including in Darat al-Izza – a town in western Aleppo held by rebel fighters including the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra – and Maarat al-Nu’man, a town in Idlib province held by Jaysh al-Fateh, a coalition of rebel fighters that also includes Nusra.

Syrian state TV said Russian aircraft also struck rebel positions in Hama province, where opposition fighters are battling to wrest control of the strategic al-Ghab plain from forces loyal to Assad’s regime, in an effort to advance towards his coastal stronghold of Latakia. Attacks also took place in Idlib, where residents told of widespread destruction.

The Russia’s foreign ministry and Putin have spoken of an “informational campaign” against Moscow by the west, reminiscent of the language they used when repeatedly denying the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine over the past year and a half despite evidence to the contrary.

Walid al-Muallem, the Syrian foreign minister, attacked Israel, the west, Gulf states and Turkey for backing terrorists. Addressing the UN general assembly on Friday, Muallem said Damascus was committed to a “national dialogue” to resolve political differences. But only Syrians could decide the president’s future, he said.

Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have continued to insist that Assad must go, but a senior Arab diplomat denied reports that Qatar had stepped up arms deliveries to Syrian rebels in response to the Russian attacks. The US, Britain and others have signalled that Assad could remain during a political transition to end the four-and-a-half-year-old war. The hope in western capitals is that Moscow will use its influence to ensure a transition does indeed take place.

An aide to the French president said Hollande and Putin had an in-depth discussion in which they “tried to narrow down differences on political transition”. But both leaders looked stern as they exchanged handshakes in a yard of the Elysee palace. Palace sources told Le Monde that the talks had focused on the goals of the Russian intervention, the safety of civilians as well as a future transition.

The two also held talks with Merkel and the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, that were meant to focus on resolving the situation in eastern Ukraine. There has been speculation that Putin might attempt to link the two issues, offering cooperation in Syria for de-escalation in Ukraine and a lifting of western sanctions imposed over Russia’s actions there.

There has been edgy diplomacy ahead of the meeting, with Ukraine’s presidential administration claiming Putin had asked for a separate bilateral meeting with Poroshenko on the sidelines of the meeting, which Kiev was considering.




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