Tuesday, October 6, 2015
The 41 groups are reacting against Moscow’s air war but a senior official says Russian fighters from Ukraine ‘can’t be stopped’ from fighting for Assad regime
Russian military support crew attach a satellite guided bomb to SU-34 jet fighter at Hmeimim airbase in Syria. Photograph: Alexander Kots/APLink
More than 40 Syrian insurgent groups have vowed to attack Russian forces in retaliation for Moscow’s air campaign, in a show of unity among the usually fragmented rebels against what they called the “occupiers” of Syria.
The 41 Syrian rebel groups, which included powerful factions such as Ahrar al-Sham, Islam Army and the Levant Front, said Russia had joined the war in Syria after President Bashar al-Assad’s forces were on the verge “of a crushing defeat”.
The insurgents’ warning came as the chairman of Russia’s parliamentary defense committee suggested that Russian “volunteer” units could join with forces fighting for Assad.
Vladimir Komoyedov, the former commander of the Black Sea fleet, told the Interfax news agency that Russians who had previously fought alongside rebels in eastern Ukraine “can’t be stopped” from going to fight for the Assad regime.
“A unit of Russian volunteers, conflict veterans, will probably appear in the ranks of the Syrian army,” Komoyedov said. “What brings volunteers there besides the cause? Of course, it’s probably money.”
Russia launched its air campaign on Wednesday and claims it is targeting the Islamic State group and al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front. But many of the strikes appear to have hit western-backed rebel factions.
The Russian attacks have largely focused on the north-western and central provinces – the gateways to the heartland of Assad’s power base in the capital, Damascus – and on the Mediterranean coast.
On Monday, Turkey said that its air force had intercepted a Russian fighter planethat had violated the country’s airspace while apparently flying a sortie over Syria – an incident that risked further inflaming tensions days after Russia’s military intervention began.
The Russian intervention has been widely criticised by Syrian opposition groups and activists, especially since Moscow once played the role of a mediator, hosting rounds of talks between the Syrian government and its opponents.Turkey’s ministry of foreign affairs said it had summoned Russia’s ambassador after two F-16 fighter jets intercepted the Russian plane while it was flying south of Hatay, a province that bordersSyria, on Saturday.
“This new reality requires the region’s countries and the allies in specific to hasten in forming a regional alliance to face the Russian-Iranian alliance that occupies Syria,” the 41 factions said in a statement released by Ahrar al-Sham. It was apparently referring to backers of the opposition, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
A Syrian military official was quoted by state media as saying that Russian airstrikes on Monday hit in the central province of Homs and Idlib in the north-west.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said warplanes believed to be Russian have targeted the northern town of al-Bab that is an Isis stronghold. It said the airstrike left “a large number” of casualties.
A Facebook page used by Isis posted photos of wounded people being treated in a clinic and another of what appeared to be a burned body being pulled out of a charred car. The Facebook page said dozens of people were killed or wounded in the airstrikes.
The Syrian militant and rebel factions, including the US-backed Division 101 and Tajammu Alezza, said: “The Russian military aggression on Syria is considered a blatant occupation of the country even if some claim it was done with the official request of the Assad regime. Those who lost legitimacy can’t offer it
Earlier in the day, militant websites reported, Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood declared that jihad against the “sheer Russian occupation of Syria” is a legitimate duty for everyone capable of carrying weapons.“All Syrian armed revolutionary factions must realise we are in a war to push an aggressor, a war that makes unifying ranks and word a duty on all brothers,” the factions said in the two-page statement posted online. “Any occupation force to our beloved country is a legitimate target.”
The Kremlin has acknowledged that military specialists are in Syria to train local troops in how to use Russian weapons, and a Russian battalion is believed to be there to protect the airbase in Latakia. But President Vladimir Putin has said he will not deploy ground troops to Syria.
However, reports have alleged that Russians who had previously fought in eastern Ukraine have been spotted among Syrian government forces.
Fighting as a mercenary is illegal under Russian law, but Komoyedov’s statement to Interfax has prompted speculation that the Kremlin could encourage irregular forces to fight in Syria, much as it reportedly did in eastern Ukraine.
“The Russian regime has carefully avoided the issue [of its use of mercenaries], because it has never has talked about the money received by those fighting in eastern Ukraine,” said defence analyst Alexander Golts.
“If the head of the parliament’s defence committee talks about money from the start of the Syria conflict, that means that one of leading faces of the regime is endorsing the use of mercenaries. I want to believe in adequacy of the Russian leadership. Any attempt to start a ground operation in Syria won’t lead to victory, as the past five to 10 years has showed. It will lead to catastrophe.”
The reported scale of the Russian mercenary presence in Syria is small. A fighter who took part in the eastern Ukraine conflict told the newspaper Kommersant at the end of September that he was helping send Russians to fight against Isis in Syria for money. He said 12 of his charges were already in Iraq and another 20 or so were preparing to travel to the Middle East in October.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of Russia’s Chechnya republic, said last week he was ready to send his soldiers to Syria. Many Chechen fighters took part in the eastern Ukraine conflict, but Kadyrov said recently all Chechens there would be withdrawn from the country.
Ruslan Leviyev, a citizen journalist who has published investigations of Russian soldiers and equipment in eastern Ukraine and more recently in Syria, on Monday posted on Facebook a summons he had received to the prosecutor general’s office for questioning.
His reports on the deployment of Russian soldiers to Syria, a taboo topic until the Kremlin recently began admitting it had military advisers there, have been sensitive. One woman reportedly wrote to him that prosecutors had opened a case against her soldier husband after Leviyev’s investigation traced his deployment to Syria.
The Radically Changing Story of the U.S. Airstrike on Afghan Hospital: From Mistake to Justification
By Glenn Greenwald
The New York Times
MOSCOW — Ratcheting up the confrontation over the Syria war, Russia said Monday that its “volunteer” ground forces would join the fight, andNATO warned the Kremlin after at least one Russian warplane trespassed into Turkey’s airspace.
The saber-rattling on both sides reflected a dangerous new big-power entanglement in the war, as longstanding differences between Russia and the United States over President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and his opponents increasingly play out not only in the halls of the United Nations but on the battlefield in Syria.
Russia squared off with Turkey and its NATO allies, calling the air incursion on Saturday an innocent mistake because of foul weather — a claim American officials rejected.
News services said late Monday that a second airspace violation might have been committed on Sunday, but that report could not be immediately confirmed.
The Russian air and ground deployments in Syria challenge the regional policies of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, President Obamaand NATO.
A Russian ground force could fundamentally alter the conflict, which has left 250,000 people dead and displaced half the country’s population since it started in 2011.
Although President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said he would not put troops in Syria, the plan for so-called volunteers was disclosed Monday by his top military liaison to the Parliament, Adm. Vladimir Komoyedov. It seemed similar to Russia’s stealth tactic in using soldiers to seize Crimea from Ukraine in March of 2014 and to aid pro-Moscow rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Moreover, American military officials said they believed that more than 600 Russian military personnel were already on the ground in Syria, not counting aircrews, and that tents for nearly 2,000 people had been seen at Russia’s air base near Latakia, in northwest Syria near the Turkish border.
Russia intensified the airstrikes it began in Syria last week, with new attacks on territory near Palmyra that is indisputably held by the Islamic State. But Russian targets remain a matter of deep contention.
Russian officials say they are targeting the Islamic State, though their bombs have mainly hit territories held by other insurgents who oppose Mr. Assad, Russia’s ally. The strikes have hit the Army of Conquest, an Islamist faction that includes the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, as well as more-secular groups that often fight alongside it, including some that have received covert American aid.
The Obama administration, by contrast, says its own airstrikes against theIslamic State in Iraq and Syria can succeed only with a political transition that ends with Mr. Assad’s removal.
The administration’s position was ridiculed Monday by Sergey V. Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, who said the American airstrikes, which began more than a year ago, had done little militarily. In comments carried by Russia’s official Tass news agency, Mr. Lavrov said that even the Americans had acknowledged their faltering efforts to create a force of so-called moderate insurgents in Syria.
“Nobody knows about these people,” he said. “Nobody’s really heard about the moderate opposition.”
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran, Mr. Assad’s regional ally, was also dismissive of the American efforts in Syria, both to unseat Mr. Assad and to combat the Islamic State. Sounding emboldened by the Russian airstrikes, Mr. Zarif said at a talk in New York that there was a difference between Russia — which was invited by Mr. Assad to help — and the American-led coalition that has been bombing Syria. “Why are you there?” he said. “Who gave you the right to be there?”
The Russian disclosure that so-called volunteer forces might soon be in Syria fueled speculation of an impending ground offensive against insurgents, one that would involve unprecedented coordination among Mr. Assad’s allies.
It could include Syria’s army fortified by forces from Russia, Iran and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, which has deployed fighters in Syria for years to help Mr. Assad. Likely targets are Army of Conquest insurgents who threaten Mr. Assad’s coastal strongholds from territory they have seized in Idlib Province, in the north.
After the Turkish airspace incident — which, at least in theory, could have escalated into a confrontation between Russia and NATO — an Obama administration official called Russia’s behavior “deliberately provocative,” while Admiral Komoyedov said his country’s “volunteers” on the way to Syria “cannot be stopped.”
As the global powers postured, gaps deepened between local and regional participants in the war, and predictions that the Russian action would strengthen radicals in the Syrian insurgency appeared to be accurate.
Insurgent groups opposing both Mr. Assad and the Islamic State, including some supported by the Americans, declared that they would no longer participate in any peace process sponsored by Russia, which they accused of occupying their country. Some vowed to work more closely with the Nusra Front.
Forty-one insurgent factions said in a statement that Russia’s “brutal occupation has cut the road to any political solution,” the latest challenge to diplomatic efforts by a special United Nations envoy, Staffan de Mistura.
Separately, in a statement laden with sectarian language, a group of prominent Saudi Arabian clerics called on Muslim and Arab countries to support a jihad, or holy war, against Mr. Assad and his Russian and Iranian patrons — even comparing the Syrian war to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s and the jihad against it that drew fighters from around the world.
The statement followed a declaration from the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, blessing the Russian fight in Syria.
Even the Islamic State, which appeared to be a minor participant in the events of the past week, sought to remind the outside world of its presence, destroying more antiquities. Syrian officials and local activists confirmed that Islamic State demolitionists had wrecked a renowned triple arch at the beginning of a Roman colonnade at the ancient city of Palmyra.
The Russian air offensive turned on Monday to that area, the oasis town of Tadmur and the adjacent ruins of Palmyra, a symbolically important site for the global outrage over the Islamic State’s policy of desecrating archaeological treasures.
A spokesman for the Russian operation, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, said at a briefing in Moscow that a pair of Su-25 fighter bombers had attacked Islamic State armored vehicles near Tadmur, destroying 20 tanks, three rocket launchers and an ammunition depot. The strike was among the 15 daytime sorties he said Russian pilots had flown.
The potential combination of Russian ground forces and aerial attacks particularly threatens to undermine Turkey’s Syria policy, which aims for the establishment of a “safe zone” along the Turkish border where some Syrian refugees could return in the future.
The Russian air incursion happened on Saturday, when Turkish fighter jets scrambled to intercept a warplane that trespassed into Turkish airspace. On Monday, NATO issued a warning to Russia, as the United States began urgent consultations with Turkey over what they called “next steps.”
Russia’s actions were “an unacceptable violation” of Turkish airspace, NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said after meeting with the Turkish foreign minister, Feridun Sinirlioglu. Mr. Stoltenberg added, “Russia’s actions are not contributing to the security and stability of the region.”
The Turkish ministry summoned Russia’s ambassador to Ankara, the capital; demanded that the violation not recur; and said that Russia would be responsible for any further escalation, Turkish officials said.
“The steps Russia is taking and the bombing campaign in Syria are quite unacceptable to Turkey,” President Erdogan told reporters at the Istanbul airport on Sunday. “Unfortunately, Russia is making a grave mistake.”
Turkey and Russia have a strong bilateral relationship, but those relations have soured in recent months because of deep differences over Syria and the stalling of a pipeline project to carry Russian gas to Turkey.
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, speaking in Madrid during a news conference with his Spanish counterpart, said American officials were conferring with Turkish authorities over the next steps.
The Russian military spokesman, General Konashenkov, said that the Russian jet’s pilot had mistakenly entered Turkish airspace in bad weather as the aircraft approached its base near Latakia, about 18 miles from the Turkish border.
A senior American official rejected the claim. “The pilot would have known where they were,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to comment by name. “I’m not a fighter pilot, but there was no way this was accidental. The notion that this was accidental is far-fetched.”