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First Russian airstrikes in Syria hit opposition, not IS, says US official

The airstrikes come just hours after parliament gave Putin the green light to intervene more directly in Syria
Russian military plane (AFP)

Russia began striking targets in Syria for the first time on Wednesday, hitting three Syrian provinces alongside Syrian government aircraft, a Syrian security source said.

The source said strikes have hit several areas in central Homs and Hama and also in the government stronghold of Latakia, with Syrian state television reporting that Russian planes were targeting the Islamic State (IS) group.

However, the areas which the Syrian state TV reported had been struck in Homs are mostly controlled by al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front, while those hit in Latakia are held by a coalition known as the Army of Conquest, which includes al-Nusra. The areas targeted in Hama include places controlled mostly by Islamist and rebel groups, as well as those held by al-Nusra and groups that have pledged allegiance to IS.

Shortly before the airstrikes began, a Russian three-star general reportedly told US officials at the American Embassy in Baghdad to clear Syrian airspace, according to Fox News

Soon after the airstrikes, US Secretary of State John Kerry said the US opposed Russian strikes on Syrian opposition forces, not Islamic State targets.

Green light from Moscow

The raids came just hours after the upper chamber of the Russian parliament unanimously voted to gave President Vladimir Putin permission to use the country's air force in Syria. 

Head of the presidential administration Sergey Ivanov told media that no ground troops would be sent and that the operation would be limited to airstrikes.

The bombing is being carried out at the behest of the Syrian government. Russia says that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had asked Moscow to step in, with Russian state channel Russia Today saying this made the intervention legal under international law, unlike the US-led anti-Islamic State airstrikes that began last year. 

Ivanov added that Putin had decided to ask to deploy Russian planes due to the large number of Russian and former USSR nationals who had chosen to join the IS group and now posed a grave threat to Russian national security. 

“This is not about reaching for some foreign policy goals, satisfying ambitions, which our Western partners regularly accuse us of. It’s only about the national interest of the Russian Federation,” the official said.

Putin had requested similar permission from the Federation Council to deploy military forces abroad ahead of the annexation of Crimea in March 2014.

Russia's powerful Orthodox church has since voiced support for Moscow's decision, calling it a "holy battle".
"The fight with terrorism is a holy battle and today our country is perhaps the most active force in the world fighting it," the head of the church's public affairs department, Vsevolod Chaplin said, according to Interfax news agency.

Assad probed for crimes against humanity 

However, the move is likely to be seen as controversial internationally with some experts warning that Russian involvement would not help defeat IS but would likely lengthen the conflict which has raged since 2011. While Moscow has suggested that it will focus on hitting IS targets, many are concerned that Russian support could also be used to crush other opposition groups.  

Russia has already provided 32 jets to Syria this month alone and has long been sending military advisers to Damascus in an attempt to prop up Assad, a long-term Russian ally. 

The US, which has long opposed Assad and demanded that he must go, on Tuesday said it would open “lines of communication” with Russia to avoid “misjudgment and miscalculation” over the skies of Syria.

“This morning, [Defence] Secretary [Ashton] Carter directed his staff to open lines of communication with Russia on deconfliction,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook told reporters at a press briefing.

“The purpose of these deconfliction discussions will be to ensure that ongoing coalition air operations are not interrupted by any future Russian military activity, to ensure the safety of coalition air crews and to avoid misjudgment and miscalculation,” Cook said.

But, US ally Saudi Arabia, which has long been one of the strongest Assad opponents, said that it would begin considering military action to oust him if he did not step down. 

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said on Tuesday that there could be "no future" for Assad regardless of what Russia or anyone else wants. 

"There are two options for a settlement in Syria. One option is a political process where there would be a transitional council," Jubeir said, describing this as the "preferred option".

"The other option is a military option, which also would end with the removal of Bashar al-Assad from power. This could be a more lengthy process and a more destructive process, but the choice is entirely that of Bashar al-Assad."

Russia's announcement follows a reportedly heated meeting on Syria between US President Barack Obama and Putin at the UN this week.

The move to step up Moscow's military engagement also comes as France announced that it would launched a probe into Assad's government for carrying out alleged crimes against humanity, a judicial source told AFP on Wednesday. 

According to the source, Paris prosecutors opened a preliminary inquiry into crimes happening between 2011 and 2013 on 15 September. 

The French investigation is largely based on evidence from a former Syrian army photographer known by the codename "Caesar", who defected and fled the country in 2013, bringing with him some 55,000 graphic photographs.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said France had a "responsibility" to take action.

"Faced with these crimes that offend the human conscience, this bureaucracy of horror, faced with this denial of the values of humanity, it is our responsibility to act against the impunity of the assassins," Fabius said in a statement sent to AFP.

While Assad is unlikely to stand trial in a French court, the inquiry could add to political pressure on the Syrian leader in the midst of a diplomatic row between the West and Russia and Iran over his fate.

More than 240,000 people - many of them civilians - have been killed since an uprising against Assad's rule began in 2011. While the West and its allies in the Gulf states and Turkey were quick to call for his overthrow, the opposition movement has since fractured, with the rise of groups like the Islamic State now overshadowing the fight against Assad.