Russia Defends Syria Airstrikes
Russia waded deeper into Syria’s civil war Thursday, striking rebel positions far from Islamic State strongholds for a second day and leaving little doubt that the immediate target of the intervention is to secure President Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power.
The expanding Russian involvement in Syria threatened to further complicate efforts to secure a negotiated settlement to the four-year-old war at a time when the influx of refugees into Europe and the endurance of the Islamic State are focusing world attention on the unrelenting bloodshed in Syria.
Amid indications that more Russian troops and military hardware may be heading to Syria, it remained unclear how far Moscow was prepared to go in support of its quest to spearhead a Russian-led solution to the war.
The latest attacks came as Russian officials extended an olive branch to moderate rebels fighting the Syrian government and said they could be included in Moscow’s plans for an eventual peace settlement.
Speaking at a news conference in New York, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that “the Free Syrian Army should be part of the political process.”
The comment seemed at odds, however, with airstrikes conducted against one of the few areas in the country where moderate rebels still have a foothold and from which the Islamic State was ejected more than a year and a half ago.
Thursday’s attacks focused on a strategically vital belt of territory in the provinces of Idlib, Hama and Homs, where steady rebel gains in recent months have threatened the government’s link between the capital Damascus and the Assad family’s coastal heartland of Latakia. The nearest Islamic State-controlled territory is more than 100 miles away.