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Russia Strikes in ISIS Territory in Syria but Ignores Western Demands

MOSCOW — Russia widened its bombings in Syria on Friday, striking Islamic State territory for the first time, but showed no hint of heeding Western demands to avoid attacks on fighters pushing to oust Syria’s weakened, Kremlin-backed president.

The Defense Ministry said its warplanes had bombed seven targets in overnight raids including a command post and training camp near Raqqa, the northeast Syrian city that the Islamic State has converted into the capital of its self-proclaimed caliphate straddling Syria and Iraq.

The Russian aerial assaults, which began on Wednesday, have surprised and angered the United States and its Western and Arab allies, who have been bombing Islamic State targets for more than a year.

These allies see Russia’s move as a reckless attempt to bolster the president, Bashar-al Assad. His control of the country is increasingly tenuous in a war now in its fifth year, with a quarter-million dead, half the country’s population displaced and millions housed in refugee camps or fleeing for Europe.

Interactive Feature | Tracking the Russian Airstrikes in Syria

The assaults have threatened to turn the war into a far more complicated and deeper conflict, throwing into doubt diplomatic efforts to find a political solution and posing new quandaries for the Obama administration, which has insisted that Mr. Assad leave office.

Mr. Obama reiterated his position on Friday at a news conference in Washington, telling reporters he rejected Russia’s view.

“We’re not going to cooperate with a Russian campaign to destroy anyone who is disgusted and fed up with Assad,” Mr. Obama said.

Senior Western diplomats at the United Nations have expressed concern that the Russian strikes, which have targeted rebel groups they support, will only embolden Mr. Assad. At the least, the strikes make it unlikely that his status will be decided ahead of any potential peace talks.

Map | Shifting Areas of Control in Syria

“We’re really concerned about the efficiency of any process that would start without sending a clear signal to all parties on the ground that at the end of the process, we will see a transition away from Bashar,” one Western diplomat said Friday. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because the issue is delicate.

For the Arab allies in the Persian Gulf in particular, the diplomat said, it would be impossible to enter into any political talks without resolving that Mr. Assad will not be able serve as president again, after a transitional government.

Sunni Arabs who loathe Mr. Assad and his alliance with Shiite Iran will revolt even more, with the potential for even greater “mayhem,” as the diplomat put it.

“It’s very important we don’t leave this question mark open,” he said.

Turkey issued a joint statement on Friday with Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United States, calling on Russia to stop targeting the opposition groups they have been supporting and warning that such attacks would feed radicalism and extremism.

Their view has been disputed by Russia, and was summarily rejected later Friday at the United Nations by the foreign minister of Syria, Walid al-Moallem.

Delivering his nation’s speech at the annual session of the General Assembly, Mr. Moallem thanked the Russians for coming to the aid of the Syrian military with airstrikes and asserted that they were part of its effort to combat terrorism.

Signaling his own confidence about Mr. Assad’s position, Mr. Moallem also ridiculed the Western-led efforts to advocate political changes in Syria while the country was under what he described as a total terrorist assault.

“Syria cannot implement any democratic political measures related to elections, a constitution or the like, while terrorism is striking at home and threatens innocent civilians in the country,” he said.

Mr. Moallem castigated the alliance of Western and Arab states for what he called their failure to stop the flow of foreign jihadists into Syria. He blamed the alliance for creating the crisis, a position the Assad government has taken since the outset.

“Our vision proved to be correct,” Mr. Moallem said.

The Syrian foreign minister’s presence at the United Nations this week has created some awkward moments for Secretary of State John Kerry, who has also been attending the General Assembly session but will not engage directly with him.

When Mr. Kerry walked into a meeting room Wednesday evening and saw Mr. Moallem speaking with Sergey V. Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, Mr. Kerry exited swiftly, two diplomats said.

A State Department official said Mr. Kerry planned to meet on Friday with Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, with whom he has developed a relationship because of the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. The Obama administration has been trying to engage with Iran on Syria, a turnabout from last year.

In Moscow on Friday, the Defense Ministry said that its warplanes had flown 10 sorties overnight, hitting seven targets including a training camp and a command post run by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, near Raqqa.

Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for the ministry, said that the training camp was near the town of Maaden Jedid and that the command post was near Kasert-Faraj, both southwest of Raqqa.

In Raqqa, the authorities announced that they were canceling Friday Prayer in the mosques as a safety measure, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a organization based in Britain that tracks local activity across the country.

The Russians also reportedly hit Qaryatayn, south of Homs, according to Mayadeen TV, a Lebanese channel close to the Damascus government. Islamic State forces captured the town recently, pushing out from the desert city of Palmyra toward Damascus, and they are still holding some Assyrian Christian hostages from there.

The other four areas that Syrian state television reported had been hit by Russian forces were in different parts of the country known to be controlled by rebel groups other than the Islamic State.

The Russian foray into Syria also preoccupied a summit meeting in Paris on Friday meant to deal with another crisis pitting Russia against the West: the insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

The leaders of Russia and France talked for an hour about Syria, a French official said, before the broader meeting, which included the leaders of Germany and Ukraine. They talked about Syria there as well.

Later at a news conference, President François Hollande of France said he had told Mr. Putin that any solution in Syria “must include the departure of Bashar al-Assad” and that Russian airstrikes should only be targeting the Islamic State. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said “the solution must take into account the interest of the opposition. We need a solution, after 250,000 dead.”

As part of its campaign in Syria, the Russian Navy has deployed the missile cruiser Moscow to defend Russian Air Force planes stationed near Latakia, the Interfax news agency reported on Friday, quoting an unidentified military source.

The missile cruiser, part of a fleet that operates permanently in the eastern Mediterranean, has fired a few shots at aerial targets, the agency reported, without providing additional details.

Russian support for the Assad government is based at least in part on a desire to maintain access to its longstanding naval station at Tartus, its only overseas military post outside the former Soviet Union.

Increased fighting in Syria was cited by the United Nations on Friday for a decision to halt humanitarian operations near Zabadini, a town near the Lebanese border and in two villages in northwest Idlib.

A statement from the office of Staffan de Mistura, the special United Nations envoy seeking a peaceful solution to the conflict, called on “all concerned parties to fulfull their responsibilities” and honor an agreement to allow the operations. The statement did not make any reference to the Russian airstrikes.

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(via NY Times)