MOSCOW:(APS) Oct 1,2015 — Russian officials vehemently defended the country’s airstrike campaign in Syria on Thursday, denying reports of civilian deaths and Western accusations that the country was targeting U.S.-backed rebels instead of the Islamic State.
But as Russia moved into a second day of attacks, it also hinted that the missions could extend beyond the Islamic State, the mutual foe of both Moscow and the West.
According to a Washington Post report that Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for President Vladimir Putin, told reporters that Russia was going after Islamic State militants as well as a “list” of other groups.
He did not elaborate, but the comment was likely to deepen suspicions by Washington and allies that Putin’s short-term aim is to give more breathing space to Syria’s embattled President Bashar al-Assad, whose government is strongly backed by Moscow.
Syrian activists, meanwhile, ramped up their own claims that Moscow was hitting groups seeking to bring down Assad, who has managed to hang on during more than four years of civil war.
Russia’s expanding military intervention in Syria also could snarl separate efforts by Russia and U.S. officials to coordinate strategies against the Islamic State and avoid potential battlefield missteps between the two powers — so-called “deconfliction” talks.
One monitoring group, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said Russian airstrikes again struck strongholds for an American-backed rebel group, Tajamu Alezzah, in the central Hama province.
The account could not be independently assessed, but the main focus of the Russian attacks appear in areas not known to have strong Islamic State footholds.
U.S. officials also dispute Moscow’s portrayal of its missions. Washington says the air attacks have hit U.S.-backed units that were trained and armed by the CIA, officials said.
In Moscow, the reply was blunt.
“Total rubbish” was how Gennady Zyuganov, a member of parliament and leader of Russia’s Communist party, called the U.S. accusations.
Vasily Likhachov, from Russia’s lower house of parliament, described the claims as “the latest anti-Russian attack” after “the pendulum of public international opinion had swung back in the direction of Russia,” the Interfax news service reported.
In Paris, the Russian ambassador to France, Alexander Orlov, said Moscow’s intervention came after a year of airstrikes by the U.S. and its partners had failed to dislodge Islamic State extremists in Syria, the Associated Press reported from Paris.
Orlov said the accusations formed part of a “war of disinformation,” saying Russian officials had warned the U.S. “via confidential channels” of where they planned to strike, the AP reported. U.S. officials say they were only given notice Wednesday.
“We are acting transparently,” Orlov said in Paris, the AP reported. The diplomat predicted Syria could be ready for “free elections” within a year.
The spokesman for Russia’s Defense Ministry, Igor Konashenkov, said Thursday that warplanes hit a dozen Islamic State targets in the past 24 hours, destroying targets including a command center and two arms depots.
The ministry gave no specific locations, but Russian ambassador Orlov said Thursday that the targets were installations for Islamic State and the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.
The comments by various Russian officials came a day after U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gave a joint press conference at the United Nations in New York, where Lavrov said that the two countries were seeking to “establish channels of communications to avoid any unintended incidents” in Syria and also working on a political settlement to the war.
Lavrov also brushed off reports Wednesday that the Russian strikes had caused civilian deaths, saying “we do not have such data.”
The U.S. and Russia agree on the need to fight the Islamic State but not about what to do with the Syrian president. The Syrian civil war, which grew out of an uprising against Assad, has killed more than 250,000 people since March 2011 and sent millions of refugees fleeing to countries in the Middle East and Europe.
The dramatic escalation of Russia’s military involvement was viewed in Washington as an affront just two days after President Obama and Putin sat down to discuss means for negotiating the deep differences in their countries’ approaches to the conflict in Syria.
The strikes sharply increase tensions with Russia, relations already strained by the Russian backing of rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Accusing Russia of “pouring gasoline on the fire,” Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter vowed that U.S. pilots would continue their year-long bombing campaign against the Islamic State in Syria, despite Moscow’s warning to keep American planes away from its operations.
“I think what they’re doing is going to backfire and is counterproductive,” Carter said.
U.S. officials were particularly irked that they didn’t get much warning of the strikes, even as they make plans to resume military talks with Russia about Syria as early as next week. Discussions have been halted since last year over Russia’s support for separatists in Ukraine.