‘Russia kills US-backed Syrian rebels in second day of air strikes as Iran prepares for ground offensive:
Russian jets bomb rebel positions(Isis) in Syria including rural areas near the north-western town of Jisr al-Shughour, a day after launching air strikes. Follow latest developments here
The long-term aim would be to defeat or demoralise the non-Isil opposition, so that Isil became the regime’s only enemy. That would force the West to back President Bashar al-Assad against it. “They want to clean the country of non-Isil rebels, and then the US will work with them as Isil will be the only enemy,” the Damascus source said.
• The Russians continued their aerial bombardment on Thursday. Targets included Jisr al-Shughour and Jabal al-Zawiya, areas under the control of Jaish al-Fatah, the Army of Conquest, an alliance of Islamist groups which have won significant victories against the regime this year. They also included Isil targets in Raqqa and Deir Ezzour provinces, including a Syrian Air Force base which fell to Isil earlier this year after a long siege.
• The Kremlin admitted on Thursday that targets included non-Isil targets – something it had previously denied – and that its aim was to shore the regime “in its weak spots”.
Among the dead from Wednesday’s strikes was said to be a prominent rebel leader in north Homs province, Captain Iyad al-Deek, a former regime officer who defected early in the uprising.
• The rebels have promised to take the fight to the Russians, some in blood-curdling comments online. “Is it not time for the knight to mount his steed? Is it not time to cut off the heads? What are we waiting for? What remains?” said one man, Mohammad al-Maghaweer, who claimed to be a front-line fighter with Jaish al-Fatah.
The rebels also claimed there were a number of civilians among the dead. “The mosque was virtually destroyed, and there was a body under the ruins, and there were eight wounded, among them a child,” said Tareq Abdul-Haq, a media activist who visited Jisr al-Shughour after the Russian bombing. He said a “poor, civilian” neighbourhood had been hit.
• Russia is preparing both a United Nations resolution purporting to cover both its bombing campaign and that of the US-led anti-Isil coalition under one formulation, and a new round of peace talks.
US and Russian military officials spoke for a little over an hour on Thursday evening about how to improve the safety of air crews conducting simultaneous air strikes in Syria and agreed to consider each other’s proposals, a Pentagon spokesman said.
“Both sides agreed to consider the proposals and provide feedback in the coming days,” Peter Cook, the Pentagon spokesman, said in a news briefing.
Cook said Elissa Slotkin, an acting assistant secretary of defense who was on the call, had noted to the Russian officials US concerns that Russian strikes so far had not targeted strongholds of Islamic State militants.
yria’s tragic and chaotic environment.
“In this case… the problems will increase for the Syrian people.”
John McCain, the US senator, said today that he could “absolutely confirm” that Russian air strikes had hit Free Syrian Army rebels who had been armed and trained by the US, writes David Lawler in Washington.
“Their initial strikes were against the individuals and groups that have been funded and trained by our CIA in an incredible flaunting of any kind of co-operation or effort to conceal what Putin’s first priority is, and that is of course to prop up Bashar al-Assad,” Mr McCain told CNN.
“I can absolutely confirm to you that they were strikes against the Free Syrian Army or groups that have been armed and trained by the CIA because we have communication with people there…this is an Orwellian experience.”
Hizbollah and the regime are preparing major ground offensive, source confirms
A Syrian from Damascus with close contacts to regime officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Hizbollah and the regime are preparing a major ground offensive on rebel-held parts of Homs following the Russian aerial bombardment, Ruth Sherlock in Washington and the Telegraph’s former Middle East correspondent reports.
There is no Isil in that area. It’s part of a project to secure the area between the Alawite heartland Latakia and Damascus. In a precursor to potential de facto partition of the country, the regime is focusing on making this area its heartland.
Two sources told the Telegraph that recent negotiations have been taking place in Zabadani, a flashpoint on the border with Lebanon trying to move its remaining population to rebel held Sunni majority Idlib, whilst, at the same time, repopulating it with people from Shia villages in the north of the country.
The air strikes are not targeting Isil, the Syrian source said: “They want to clean the country of non-Isil rebels, and then the US will work with them as Isil will be the only enemy,” he said.
American-led coalition to see the Assad regime as a legitimate partner to work with on chemical weapons, but not to work with them on defeating terrorism.
And he would not be drawn on any Iran-backed ground invasion, saying only – ominously – that he was not a military planner, and that he was working in conjunction with Syrian government forces.
Iran troops in Syria as Russia bombs CIA-trained rebels
Hundreds of Iranian troops have arrived in Syria to join a major ground offensive in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s government, Lebanese sources said on Thursday, a sign the civil war is turning still more regional and global in scope.
Russian warplanes, in a second day of strikes, bombed a camp run by rebels trained by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, the group’s commander said, putting Moscow and Washington on opposing sides in a Middle East conflict for the first time since the Cold War.
Senior U.S. and Russian officials spoke for just over an hour by secure video conference on Thursday, focusing on ways to keep air crews safe, the Pentagon said, as the two militaries carry out parallel campaigns with competing objectives.
“We made crystal clear that, at a minimum, the priority here should be the safe operation of the air crews over Syria,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said.
Two Lebanese sources told Reuters hundreds of Iranian troops had reached Syria in the past 10 days with weapons to mount a major ground offensive. They would also be backed by Assad’s Lebanese Hezbollah allies and by Shi’ite militia fighters from Iraq, while Russia would provide air support.
“The vanguard of Iranian ground forces began arriving in Syria -soldiers and officers specifically to participate in this battle. They are not advisers …we mean hundreds with equipment and weapons. They will be followed by more,” one of the sources said.
So far, direct Iranian military support for Assad has come mostly in the form of military advisers. Iran has also mobilized Shi’ite militia fighters, including Iraqis and some Afghans, to fight alongside Syrian government forces.
Moscow said it had hit Islamic State positions, but the areas it struck near the cities of Hama and Homs are mostly held by a rival insurgent alliance, which unlike Islamic State is supported by U.S. allies including Arab states and Turkey.
Hassan Haj Ali, head of the Liwa Suqour al-Jabal rebel group that is part of the Free Syrian Army, told Reuters one of the targets was his group’s base in Idlib province, struck by about 20 missiles in two separate raids. His fighters had been trained by the CIA in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, part of a programme Washington says is aimed at supporting groups that oppose both Islamic State and Assad.
“Russia is challenging everyone and saying there is no alternative to Bashar,” Haj Ali said. He said the Russian jets had been identified by members of his group who once served as Syrian air force pilots.
The group is one of at least three foreign-backed FSA rebel factions to say they had been hit by the Russians in the last two days.
At the United Nations, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference Moscow was targeting Islamic State. He did not specifically deny that Russian planes had attacked Free Syrian Army facilities but said Russia did not view it as a terrorist group and viewed it as part of a political solution in Syria.
The aim is to help the Syrian armed forces “in their weak spots”, said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook described Thursday’s military talks as “cordial and professional.” During the talks, Elissa Slotkin, an acting assistant U.S. secretary of defense, “noted U.S. concern that areas targeted by Russia so far were not ISIL strongholds.” Cook said, using an acronym for Islamic State.
The Pentagon said it would not share U.S. intelligence with Russia and suggested the talks included ideas to increase safety, such as agreeing on radio frequencies for distress calls and a common language for communications.
U.S. Republican Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and a frequent Obama critic, questioned the logic of talks on how to keep U.S. and Russian militaries apart, known in military parlance as “deconfliction.”
“Unfortunately, it appears ‘deconfliction’ is merely an Orwellian euphemism for this administration’s acceptance of Russia’s expanded role in Syria, and as a consequence, for Assad’s continued brutalization of the Syrian people,” McCain said.
Russia’s decision to join the war with air strikes on behalf of Assad, as well as the increased military involvement of Iran, could mark a turning point in a conflict that has drawn in most of the world’s military powers.