RUSSIA has launched a second wave of air-strikes on Syria, and said that Islamic State (IS) had been targeted. The Russian Defence Ministry said that its planes had destroyed 12 terrorist targets yesterday, including an ammunition depot and control centres.
Russia’s actions came immediately after world leaders met this week at the United Nations in New York to explore ways of ending the conflict in Syria. On Wednesday, the Russian parliament backed the request from the President, Vladimir Putin, to allow air-strikes by Russian forces over Syria. The first attacks took place the same day, near Homs.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that 27 people, including six children, had been killed.
President Putin dismissed reports that civilians had been killed in the strikes as an “information attack”, and said that Moscow was liaising with the United States on Syria. In a live broadcast from the Kremlin, he said that Russia was “ready for such information attacks. . . The first reports of civilian casualties came even before our jets took off.”
The US has disputed that the air strikes hit US-trained rebel groups who are opposing Syrian regime forces, including the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, in the north-west of the country. The US Defence Secretary, Ashton Carter, said this morning that the attack was “unlikely to have hit Islamic State targets”, and that the strategy was “doomed to failure”.
Key diplomats are reported to be planning talks between the US and the Russian military “as soon as possible”.
While there was broad agreement at the UN earlier this week that a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Syria must be found, differences over various means remained wide. Several Western heads of government have changed their position from one insisting that President Bashar al-Assad must step down in the first phase of any change in Syria to accepting that he could be part of a transitional administration.
It is recognised that the mistake of outside involvement in Iraq must be avoided, and that the central authority should be held together in any regime change.
President Obama spoke of the need for “a managed transition” towards a new leadership for Syria, but made it clear that the US could not accept President Assad’s remaining in power after that. He described the Syrian leader as a “tyrant who drops barrel bombs on innocent children”.
David Cameron agreed with the idea of a strictly limited transition period, “but what is clear at the end of that [is that] Assad cannot be the head of Syria. It wouldn’t work”. The idea of cutting “a deal with Assad to team up and tackle Islamic State” sounded enticing, he said, but, “even if it were the right thing to do, which it isn’t, it wouldn’t work. We need a Syria free from IS and Assad.”
This appears to be the main difference of opinion between Western leaders on the one side, and the Russian President on the other. “We think”, Mr Putin said, “it is an enormous mistake to refuse co-operating with the Syrian government, which is valiantly fighting terrorism.” Russia is also critical of Western support for opposition groups in the country.
The views of the Syrian opposition groups constitute yet another obstacle along the diplomatic path. To most opponents of the existing regime, the idea of co-operating with President Assad for even a limited period is out of the question.
A spokesman for a powerful coalition of Islamist groups, Ahrar al-Sham, said that working with the current leadership would be a mark of “disrespect towards the sacrifices of the Syrian people, and, even more importantly, irreverence towards the will of the Syrian people”.
The most optimistic sign to emerge from the discussions in New York was a willingness on the part of President Obama and President Putin to work together, despite their differences, to seek an end to the conflict in Syria. But there is no disguising the fact that there is no imminent solution.
To complicate matters further, the West’s key Middle Eastern allies, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, reject the idea of President Assad’s remaining in power during a transition period. The inevitable conclusion, therefore, is that Syria faces another winter of death and destruction, and the exodus of more of its civilian population.