Obama warns Russia of getting into quagmire in Syria

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Beirut/Washington (dpa) – US President Barack Obama warned Friday that efforts by Russia to prop up the Syrian regime will only “get them stuck in a quagmire” and strengthen Islamic State.

Russian military intervention “won’t work” and would damage the moderate Syrian opposition needed to create a political solution without President Bashar al-Assad, Obama said.

“They are going to be there for awhile if they don’t take a different course,” he told a press conference at the White House.

Obama, who met with President Vladimir Putin at the United Nations earlier this week, said he was willing to work with Russia to broker a political solution that involved al-Assad stepping down, but would not cooperate with a Russian campaign that targets the moderate opposition.

He called Putin’s view that there was no difference between Islamic State and the moderate Syrian opposition “a recipe for disaster and it’s one that I reject.”

Russian airstrikes are driving the moderate opposition “underground, or creating a situation in which they are decapacitated, and it’s only strengthening ISIL,” he said. “And that’s not good for anybody.”

He said Russia was acting out of weakness and painted Moscow as part of a coalition involving only the al-Assad regime and Iran, but noted the US stood with the broader international community and was focused on destroying Islamic State.

Russian warplanes continued airstrikes against the Islamic State extremist militia in Syria, Syrian state media and activists reported Friday amid growing concerns about civilian casualties.

Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted Friday by the Interfax news agency as saying the operation in Syria is being implemented strictly in compliance with the principles of human rights and “in this case at the request of the Syrian leadership.”

The support for the Syrian Army should help uphold the territorial integrity of Syria, he said, speaking in Paris where Putin met Friday with the leaders of Ukraine, France and Germany on the subject of the Ukraine conflict.

Syria’s official news agency SANA reported that Russian jets along with government warplanes, carried out airstrikes against Islamic State targets in the provinces of Aleppo in the north, Hama in the centre and Idlib in the north-west.

Command centres and arms warehouses of the al-Qaeda splinter group were destroyed in the bombing, according to SANA. No casualties were given.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists in Syria, said at least 12 Islamic State insurgents had been killed in strikes by Russian warplanes in the eastern province of al-Raqqa, the stronghold of the radical group in Syria.

“The Russian aircraft carried out overnight at least nine strikes in al-Raqqa, killing 12 Islamic State militants,” Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of the Britain-based Observatory, told dpa.

The Observatory also reported that Russian jets pounded facilities of the al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Nusra Front, in the southern part of Idlib.

On Wednesday, Russia, a major ally of Syria, started its first airstrikes there, insisting they are aimed at the Islamic State that rules large swathes of the war-torn country.

However, the West-backed Syrian opposition said the strikes had killed civilians and targeted moderate rebels hostile to both the Islamic State and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Emile Hokayem, an analyst with the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, told dpa Russia seeks to ensure the survival of Assad first and foremost “and those threatening Assad are non-[Islamic State] rebels.”

At least seven civilians were killed in the first Russian airstrikes in the rebel-held town of Jabal al-Zawiya in Idlib, according to the Observatory. The dead included a child and a woman.

Jabal al-Zawiya is mainly controlled by al-Nusra Front and other Islamist rebel groups.

On Friday, several air raids believed to be mounted by Russian jets also targeted the town of Qaryatain on the south-eastern outskirts of Homs province in central Syria, the Observatory said without reporting casualties.

The Islamic State seized Qaryatain, a mostly Christian area, from al-Assad’s troops in August.

Emboldened by Russia’s air campaign, Syrian government helicopters dropped barrels packed with explosives on the rebel-controlled town of Ezzul Din on the northern part of Homs, the Observatory said. No casualties were reported.

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