Updated on October 1 at 12:06 p.m.
Russia has carried out more strikes in Syria, a day after it began its first foreign military operation outside Europe since its troops left Afghanistan in the late 1980s.
The Defense Ministry’s press service said in a statement that Russian warplanes performed eight sorties, “eliminating the staff of terrorist groupings,” as well as an ammunition depot near Idlib and a “three-level HQ center” near Hama. A plant that made car bombs was destroyed in Homs, it said.
Those “terrorist groupings” likely refers to the Jaish al-Fatah, or Army of Conquest, a group of rebels that includes the al-Nusrah Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria; Ahrar al-Sham, a hardline Islamist group; and other relatively moderate Islamist groups. All are opposed to the Islamic State, which is the group that Russia is ostensibly in Syria to target.
Earlier this year, the Army of Conquest captured Idlib city, as well as the province with which it shares a name, from Syrian forces. The region is pivotal not only to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose support base in centered on the coastal region, but also Russia, because Idlib city is only 120 miles northeast of Tartus, where Russia’s sole Mediterranean naval base for its Black Sea fleet is located.
Speaking to reporters at the UN, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister said, Russia’s targets were “ISIL, Nusra, and other groups.” He said Russia would only target those groups recognized as terrorist organizations by international law.
The Russian statement said the strikes were coordinated with the Syrian military, which has been fighting a five-year-long civil war against many rebel groups, whose affiliations range from leftist to hard-line Islamist. All are united in their desire to topple Assad, a Russian ally.
Russia’s targeting of groups other than the Islamic State, including those backed by the West, caused friction with the U.S. on Wednesday, the first day of strikes. The Free Syrian Army, the anti-Assad rebel group that is backed by the West, said it was targeted by one of the strikes, adding one of its leaders was killed.
Lavrov told reporters at the UN on Thursday Russia doesn’t “consider FSA a terrorist group. We believe [they] should be part of political process.”
In Washington, Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Wednesday said the Russian mission was “doomed to failure.”
“The result of this kind of action will inevitably simply be to inflame the civil war in Syria,” he said. “It’s ill-advised to take this kind of action in support of Assad, only without pursuing a political transition.”
Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Russian counterpart, Lavrov, at the UN on Wednesday, and called the discussions “constructive.”
“We agreed on the imperative to, as soon as possible, have a military-to-military de-conflicting discussion,” he said.
The Russian strikes began Wednesday just hours after President Vladimir Putin received permission from the upper house of Parliament to use military force overseas. Russia has insisted that ground troops will not be used in Syria. But over the past month, Russia has sent both military personnel and tanks into Syria to aid Assad, and last weekend, Moscow announced an intelligence-sharing agreement with Syria, Iran, and Iraq in their fight against Islamic State.
The Russian action came just days after Putin and President Obama met at the UN. There, Putin called for a broad coalition against the Islamic State; Obama said he was willing to work with anyone, “but we must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the prewar status quo.”
The U.S. and its allies are carrying out their own airstrikes in Syria against the Islamic State, and those strikes will continue, Kerry said. But the U.S. has been reluctant to play a more assertive role in Syria because it fears weapons could fall into the hands of al-Nusrah front and groups like it.
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