U.S.-backed Syrian rebels appeal for antiaircraft missiles

By Liz Sly and Andrew Roth

October 2, 2015

BEIRUT -- U.S.-backed rebels in Syria appealed to the Obama administration Friday for anti­aircraft missiles to defend their positions against relentless Russian airstrikes that have so far mostly targeted the moderate opposition to President Bashar al-Assad's rule.

A joint statement issued by the United States and other Western allies who have collectively aided moderate rebel units urged Russia to stop targeting moderate rebels and "to focus its efforts on fighting ISIL," the acronym referring to the Islamic State.

U.S. officials indicated that there is no immediate plan to offer additional assistance to the rebel units that have been armed and trained under a covert CIA-led program aimed at supporting moderate groups and weakening Assad's hold on power.

The covert operation is separate from a much-publicized Pentagon program to train a force to fight the Islamic State that has so far produced no more than four or five loyal fighters, and it is widely credited with having helped rebel advances­ over the past six months in the areas now being targeted by the Russians.

Russian warplanes sustained their bombardment of rebel positions in northern Syria for a third day Friday, and for the first time, the Defense Ministry in Moscow said the strikes also hit targets in the heart of Islamic State territory, in the north-central Syrian province of Raqqa.

A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, said two strikes overnight Thursday hit an Islamic State training camp and a command post south of the city of Raqqa, expanding the scope of the air campaign.

But continued airstrikes Friday suggested that Russia's main priority remains the anti-Assad rebellion in northern and western Syria, which poses a greater threat to the regime's control over Damascus, the capital, than the forces­ of the Islamic State, concentrated in the far north and east of the country.

The attacks by Russian warplanes on the provinces of Hama, Homs and Idlib "did not target Daesh," said the joint statement by the United States and its allies, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. "These military actions constitute a further escalation and will only fuel more extremism and radicalization."

The statement was signed by the governments of the United States, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Kingdom, which have collectively participated in the effort to arm and train moderate rebels through joint operations centers in Turkey and Jordan.

One of the groups that has received weapons and training under the program said its positions in the Hama town of Latamneh were hit by 15 bombs Friday, the third and heaviest consecutive day of strikes against the town. Although Russian officials have insisted that their attacks are only targeting the Islamic State, the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra or "other" terrorist organizations, no other military group is present in the town, according to Capt. Mustafa Moarati, a spokesman for the Tajamu al-Izza rebel brigade.

He said a video released by the Russian Defense Ministry on Thursday purportedly showing the destruction of an Islamic State headquarters in fact was of a command center of the U.S.-backed group. The Russians are using Su-34 warplanes that are more sophisticated than any in the existing Syrian air force, enabling a more accurate delivery of higher-ordnance missiles than had been the case when Syrian warplanes were bombing, he said.

"They are doing this for two reasons. Firstly, because we are friends with the United States and they want to challenge the United States. And secondly, to vanquish the Free Syrian Army on the ground to show the world that only extremists are fighting Assad and that therefore he should survive," Moarati said, moments before a huge explosion interrupted the call with him.

It was the second Russian strike of the day and the sixth in three days, he said, later adding that 13 more strikes followed. He said his unit has already received TOW anti­tank missiles from the United States under the covert program. Unless it also receives anti­aircraft missiles, his unit is in danger of being eliminated, he said.

"At least they could give us anti­aircraft missiles," he said.

Hassan Haj Ali, the commander of Suqour al-Jabal, another U.S.-backed group targeted by Russian strikes Thursday, said that unless the United States offers help to the rebels it has supported so far, there is a risk of further radicalizing rebels who have so far adhered to the moderate demands of the 2011 uprising against Assad's rule. He said he had not received any response to a request for help from the United States, relayed through intermediaries, who said they would consult with U.S. leaders.

"We need one of two things. Either a clear policy from the United States to prevent Russia and the regime from bombing Syrians, or otherwise they should send us anti­aircraft missiles so that we can confront the Russian planes," he said, speaking from the main front line between rebels and the Islamic State in the northern Aleppo town of Marae.

"If they don't help us, people will lose trust in our supporters, and this will increase extremism," he added.

A U.S military official said the request was under consideration. Repeated requests by U.S.-backed rebels to be supplied with anti­aircraft missiles to be used against Syrian aircraft have been repeatedly refused in the past.

"It's a complicated question and an even more complicated answer," said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter freely. "Any decisions that we make, there are going to be ramifications," not just for the United States but also for Washington's partners in the military coalition against the Islamic State, he said.

Roth reported from Moscow. Missy Ryan in Washington and Sam Rifaie in Beirut contributed to this report.

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Russian warplanes strike deep inside Islamic State's heartland

By Liz Sly and Andrew Roth

October 2, 2015

BEIRUT -- Russian warplanes have struck targets deep inside the Islamic State's heartland province of Raqqa for the first time, Russia's Defense Ministry said Friday.

The strikes were carried out against an Islamic State training camp and a command post near the city of Raqqa, expanding the scope of a three-day-old air campaign that had previously focused on attacking rebel groups opposed to the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.

Those attacks continued Friday, with one U.S.-backed rebel group in the northwestern province of Hama saying its bases had been hit for the sixth time in three days by Russian jets.

Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for Russia's Defense Ministry, said the Raqqa strikes took place overnight Thursday and were among 18 sorties conducted over the previous 24 hours, bringing to 30 the total number of raids since Moscow launched its air campaign in Syria on Wednesday.

Other targets hit included locations in the central province of Hama, where much of the countryside is controlled by an assortment of rebel groups ranging from moderate U.S.-backed rebels to the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.

Russia insists, however, that many of its strikes have been against the Islamic State, even though the Islamic State is not present in the other provinces hit by Russian warplanes.

At the United Nations, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said Friday that Russia launched its bombing campaign at the Assad government's request, and he suggested that strikes by a U.S.-led coalition have been ineffective because they were not coordinated with the Syrian military.

"Airstrikes are useless unless they are conducted in cooperation with the Syrian army, the only force in Syria that is combating terrorism," Moualem told world leaders gathered for the U.N. General Assembly. He said "all of the previous operations" to combat terrorism through airstrikes have served only to spread it -- an apparent reference to the U.S.-led campaign that began a year ago.

In Paris, the leaders of France, Russia and German met Friday in an effort to bridge differences over Assad's fate in the event of a political transition in Syria. French President Francois Holland and Russian President Vladi­mir Putin also discussed Russia's airstrikes and the need to protect civilians, the Associated Press reported.

The United States and six allies and coalition partners, meanwhile, expressed "deep concern" about Russian strikes in Hama, Homs and Idlib provinces in western Syria -- attacks that they said "led to civilian casualties and did not target" the Islamic State. "These military actions constitute a further escalation and will only fuel more extremism and radicalization," the countries said in a joint statement.

"We call on the Russian Federation to immediately cease its attacks on the Syrian opposition and civilians and to focus its efforts on fighting ISIL," they said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. Joining the United States in the statement were Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Russian Defense Ministry officials on Thursday released a video showing what they said was a strike on an Islamic State base in the Hama province town of Latamneh. Speaking from Latamneh on Friday, a rebel spokesman said the only military group in the town is the Free Syrian Army's Tajamu al-Izza brigade, which has received U.S. weaponry and training in the past and has been the target of all the Russian strikes there.

"They are doing this for two reasons. Firstly because we are friends with the United States and they want to challenge the United States. And secondly to vanquish the Free Syrian Army on the ground to show the world that only extremists are fighting Assad and that therefore he should survive," said the spokesman, Capt. Mustafa Moarati, before a huge explosion interrupted the call.

It was the second Russian strike of the day and the sixth in three days, he said. "At least they could give us antiaircraft missiles," he pleaded after the explosion died down.

The latest strikes came as Russian media reported that Moscow has readied additional sea power in the eastern Mediterranean to protect the skies over its air base in the Syrian port city of Latakia.

The Russian Interfax news service, which has close ties to the government, said the missile cruiser "Moskva" and an unspecified force of other ships in the region would begin military drills to prepare for a possible aerial attack.

The Islamic State, as well as the other rebel groups fighting in Syria, are not known to have any air power, but U.S. warplanes regularly fly over the country attacking Islamic State targets. The Israeli air force also makes occasional bombing raids against pro-government targets.

Western and Russian military analysts believe that the jet fighters and antiaircraft weapons the Russians have positioned in Syria would be used to protect the base from an attack by the U.S.-led coalition, or to close the airspace in the region if the Russian government chose to do so.

In Moscow, a senior Russian diplomat said Friday that no progress had been made on a Russia-NATO hotline to defuse potential military conflicts, and that Russia would attempt to focus on bilateral "deconfliction" efforts with the United States instead.

The United States is leading a coalition of Western and Middle Eastern countries that have trained anti-Assad rebels and launched more than 7,000 airstrikes in Syria and Iraq in the past year.

"We have NATO's number; they have ours," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Meshkov said, according to Interfax. "It's necessary to distinguish between two things: one thing is dialogue on contact between the military between Russia and the U.S., and the other is Russia and NATO. There is nothing between Russia and NATO so far."

Russian and Pentagon military officials held a one-hour video call on Thursday that a senior Russian military official called "constructive."

"They discussed measures to ensure the safe use of aviation over Syrian territory, including through the engagement of the potential of the information center recently set up in Baghdad," Konashenkov said in a televised statement on Friday.

Both Russia and the United States have declared the need to avoid an accidental clash over Syria's increasingly crowded skies, but they have not agreed on a format. Russia has urged the United States to join an intelligence-sharing center with Syria, Iran and Iraq that was announced last week to deep surprise in the United States.

Meanwhile, the Iranian ambassador to Russia said his country does not have forces fighting in Syria, although it has sent military advisers there. The denial followed media reports on Thursday that Iran has dispatched troops to Damascus to participate in a possible Russian-backed offensive.

"Military advisers of Iran always were and now are in Syria," he said. "We see no need to send military units there," the diplomat said.

Roth reported from Moscow. William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.