Anti-Islamic State coalition members slam Russian strikes in Syria

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The governments of nations taking part in the US-led campaign against the Islamic State extremist group on Friday sharply criticized Russian military actions in Syria.

“We express our deep concern with regard to the Russian military build-up in Syria and especially ‎the attacks by the Russian Air Force,” said a joint statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States, which was released by Ankara.

The airstrikes – which took place in the provinces of Hama, Homs and Idlib – led to civilian casualties and “did not target” Islamic State, the statement said.

Russia has denied causing civilian casualties, and Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced reports of civilian casualties as part of a media campaign against Russia. He said initial reports of such casualties appeared before the airstrikes began.

Moscow has said the airstrikes are being performed exclusively within the national interests of Russia, which has expressed concern over about 2,400 Russian citizens fighting for Islamic State and the threat they pose if they return home.

But countries in the US-led coalition argued Friday that Russia’s actions would encourage extremism.

“These military actions constitute a further escalation and will only fuel more extremism and radicalization,” the statement said, calling on Russia to stop its attacks on Syrian rebel groups fighting President Bashar al-Assad and focus instead on Islamic State.

Russia, a main backer of al-Assad, began carrying out airstrikes in Syria Wednesday. Moscow has also deployed some land forces to protect its aircraft on the ground.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that the airstrikes were targeting Islamic State and other terrorist and extremist groups in collaboration with the Syrian military, state media reported.

The White House on Thursday would not rule out that opposition groups receiving US assistance were among those hit.

Australia, which is also conducting airstrikes against Islamic State as part of the US-led coalition, said Friday that Russia’s motives in Syria are “not trustworthy.”

Justice Minister Michael Keenan, who is responsible for Australia’s counterterrorism efforts, said Russian airstrikes had not targeted Islamic State but US-supported Syrian rebels opposed to al-Assad.

Russia hit back its embassy in Canberra saying Kennan’s statement was not true and, unlike the US-led coalition, Russia is operating legally in Syria upon a request by the Syrian government

“Russia’s goal in Syria is the same as the goal proclaimed by the US-led coalition — to defeat ISIL [Islamic State],” the embassy said in a statement quoted by the broadcaster ABC.

But Australia’s position was backed by an analyst with the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. The Russian airstrikes have been aimed so far exclusively at fighters with the anti-government opposition and not Islamic State, Emile Hokayem said.

He charged that Putin’s rhetoric against Islamic State was merely a smokescreen. “Russia seeks to ensure the survival of Assad first and foremost,” Hokayem said. “… The fight against IS is a secondary consideration.”

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