Russia defends its military action in Syria

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Russia Defends Air Strikes in Syria


MOSCOW (AP) -- As Russian warplanes carried out a second wave of airstrikes Thursday in Syria, Moscow defended its military involvement against Western criticism of its intentions, saying it sees "eye-to-eye" with the U.S.-led coalition campaign on its targets in the country.

The claim of agreement with Washington came amid conflicting reports about Russia's intentions in Syria and whether it is targeting only Islamic State and al-Qaida-linked militants.

The U.S. and its allies fear that Russia, which has backed the family of President Bashar Assad since the current leader's father was in power, is using the air campaign as a pretext to go after anti-Assad rebels that include CIA-backed groups.

Russian jets appeared to be primarily bombing central and northwestern Syria, strategic regions that are the gateway to Assad's strongholds in the capital of Damascus and the coast.

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Russia defends its military action in Syria
This photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site Friday, Nov. 6, 2015, shows a target hit during a Russian air raid in Syria. Russia has been carrying out airstrikes on Islamic State fighters in Syria since the end of September at the request of President Bashar Assad, Russia's long-term ally. (AP Photo/ Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - NOVEMBER 03: A Syrian man runs past the rubble of a building destroyed in the Russian airstrikes on the opposition-controlled Mashhad neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on November 03, 2015. (Photo by Beha el Halebi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - NOVEMBER 03: Syrians search for survivors in the rubble of buildings following the Russian airstrikes on the opposition-controlled Mashhad neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on November 03, 2015. (Photo by Ibrahim Ebu Leys/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - NOVEMBER 03: Syrians evacuate people from damaged buildings following the Russian airstrikes on the opposition-controlled Mashhad neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on November 03, 2015. (Photo by Ibrahim Ebu Leys/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - NOVEMBER 03: Syrians evacuate people from damaged buildings following the Russian airstrikes on the opposition-controlled Mashhad neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on November 03, 2015. (Photo by Ibrahim Ebu Leys/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - OCTOBER 17: Smoke rises from an opposition-controlled residential area in Aleppo, Syria following the Russian airstrikes on October 17, 2015. (Photo by Beha El-Halebi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site on Friday, Oct. 2, 2015 a bomb explosion is seen in Syria. Pentagon officials urged the Russian military on Thursday to focus its airstrikes in Syria on Islamic State fighters rather than opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad, U.S. administration officials said. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015, a Russian navy ship launches cruise missileS in the Caspian Sea. Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said four Russian navy ships in the Caspian launched 26 cruise missiles at Islamic State targets in Syria.(Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015, a Russian navy ship launches a cruise missile in the Caspian Sea. Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said four Russian navy ships in the Caspian launched 26 cruise missiles at Islamic State targets in Syria.(Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015, a Russian navy ship launches a cruise missile in the Caspian Sea. Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said four Russian navy ships in the Caspian launched 26 cruise missiles at Islamic State targets in Syria.(Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015, a Russian navy ship launches a cruise missile in the Caspian Sea. Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said four Russian navy ships in the Caspian launched 26 cruise missiles at Islamic State targets in Syria.(Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015, a Russian navy ship launches a cruise missile in the Caspian Sea. Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said four Russian navy ships in the Caspian launched 26 cruise missiles at Islamic State targets in Syria. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
In this image made from video provided by Homs Media Centre, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, smoke rises after airstrikes by military jets in Talbiseh of the Homs province, western Syria, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015. Russian military jets carried out airstrikes in Syria for the first time on Wednesday, targeting what Moscow said were Islamic State positions. U.S. officials and others cast doubt on that claim, saying the Russians appeared to be attacking opposition groups fighting Syrian government forces. (Homs Media Centre via AP)
This image taken in Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015 posted on the Twitter account of Syria Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, a volunteer search and rescue group, shows the aftermath of an airstrike in Talbiseh, Syria. Russia on Wednesday carried out its first airstrikes in Syria in what President Vladimir Putin called a pre-emptive strike against the militants. Khaled Khoja, head of the Syrian National Council opposition group, said at the U.N. that Russian airstrikes in four areas, including Talbiseh, killed dozens of civilians, with children among the dead. (Syria Civil Defence via AP)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015 a bomb explosion is seen in Syria. Reacting to criticism that it is targeting opponents of the Syrian government, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted on Thursday that Russia's airstrikes in Syria are targeting not only Islamic State militants but also other groups. (AP Photo/ Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015 a bomb explosion is seen in Syria. Reacting to criticism that it is targeting opponents of the Syrian government, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted on Thursday that Russia's airstrikes in Syria are targeting not only Islamic State militants but also other groups. (AP Photo/ Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015 a bomb explosion is seen in Syria. Reacting to criticism that it is targeting opponents of the Syrian government, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted on Thursday that Russia's airstrikes in Syria are targeting not only Islamic State militants but also other groups. (AP Photo/ Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)
This image taken in Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015 posted on the Twitter account of Syria Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, a volunteer search and rescue group, shows the aftermath of an airstrike in Talbiseh, Syria. Russia on Wednesday carried out its first airstrikes in Syria in what President Vladimir Putin called a pre-emptive strike against the militants. Khaled Khoja, head of the Syrian National Council opposition group, said at the U.N. that Russian airstrikes in four areas, including Talbiseh, killed dozens of civilians, with children among the dead. (Syria Civil Defence via AP)
This image taken in Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015 posted on the Twitter account of Syria Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, a volunteer search and rescue group, shows the aftermath of an airstrike in Talbiseh, Syria. Russia on Wednesday carried out its first airstrikes in Syria in what President Vladimir Putin called a pre-emptive strike against the militants. Khaled Khoja, head of the Syrian National Council opposition group, said at the U.N. that Russian airstrikes in four areas, including Talbiseh, killed dozens of civilians, with children among the dead. (Syria Civil Defence via AP)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015 a bomb explosion is seen in Syria. Reacting to criticism that it is targeting opponents of the Syrian government, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted on Thursday that Russia's airstrikes in Syria are targeting not only Islamic State militants but also other groups. (AP Photo/ Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015 a bomb explosion is seen in Syria. Reacting to criticism that it is targeting opponents of the Syrian government, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted on Thursday that Russia's airstrikes in Syria are targeting not only Islamic State militants but also other groups. (AP Photo/ Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)
In this photo made from footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official website on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, a bomb explosion is seen in Syria. Reacting to criticism that it is targeting opponents of the Syrian government, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted on Thursday that Russia's airstrikes in Syria are targeting not only Islamic State militants but also other groups. (AP Photo/Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015 a bomb explosion is seen in Syria. Reacting to criticism that it is targeting opponents of the Syrian government, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted on Thursday that Russia's airstrikes in Syria are targeting not only Islamic State militants but also other groups. (AP Photo/ Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech during a weekly meeting with ministers of the Russian Government in Novo-Ogaryovo State Residence September 30, 2015 outside Moscow, Russia. Vladimir Putin has received permission from Parliament for Russian military forces to launch airstrikes in Syria, two days after the Russian leader spoke to the UN and called for an international coalition against terrorism to fight Islamic State (ISIS). (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, rear center, holds a meeting with senior government officials at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015. Russian military jets carried out airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Syria on Wednesday for the first time, after President Vladimir Putin received parliamentary approval to send Russian troops to Syria. (Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to a weekly meeting with ministers of the Russian Government in Novo-Ogaryovo State Residence September 30, 2015 outside Moscow, Russia. Vladimir Putin has received permission from Parliament for Russian military forces to launch airstrikes in Syria, two days after the Russian leader spoke to the UN and called for an international coalition against terrorism to fight Islamic State (ISIS). (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
A picture taken on September 30, 2015 shows damaged buildings and a minaret in the central Syrian town of Talbisseh in the Homs province. Russian warplanes carried out air strikes in three Syrian provinces, including Homs, along with regime aircraft on September 30, according to a Syrian security source. Earlier in the day, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, reported at least 27 civilians had been killed in air strikes in the Homs province, adding that the strikes hit Rastan, Talbisseh and Zaafarani. The other Syrian security source said the Russian strikes had hit Rastan and Talbisseh in the province of Homs. AFP PHOTO / MAHMOUD TAHA (Photo credit should read MAHMOUD TAHA/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on September 30, 2015 shows a general view of deserted streets and damaged buildings in the central Syrian town of Talbisseh in the Homs province. Russia confirmed on Septemer 30 that it carried out its first airstrike in Syria, near the city of Homs, marking the formal start of Moscow's military intervention in the 4.5-year-old conflict. AFP PHOTO / MAHMOUD TAHA (Photo credit should read MAHMOUD TAHA/AFP/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - OCTOBER 01: A damaged vehicle is seen at the site of the alleged Russian airstrikes targeting the training camp of Suqour al-Jabal Brigades in Kafr Nabl town of Idlib, Syria on October 01, 2015. (Photo by Firas Khalife/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - OCTOBER 01: The training camp of Suqour al-Jabal Brigades is destroyed in the alleged Russian airstrikes in Kafr Nabl town of Idlib, Syria on October 01, 2015. (Photo by Firas Khalife/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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Warplanes hit locations of a U.S.-backed rebel group, Tajamu Alezzah, in the central province of Hama, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. It added that Tajamu Alezzah also was targeted a day earlier.

Idlib province appeared to bear the brunt of the attacks, activists said. The province is controlled by a coalition of rebel groups that include the al-Qaida-linked Jabbat al-Nusra.

In Syria's chaotic civil war and rapidly shifting battlefield terrain, however, it can be difficult to distinguish which groups holds what territory.

On Wednesday, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Russian warplanes "didn't hit Islamic State," and U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter had also said the Russians appeared to have targeted areas that did not include IS militants.

Speaking Thursday at the United Nations, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov rejected suggestions that the airstrikes were to shore up support for Moscow's main ally in the Middle East.

He insisted Russia was targeting the same militant groups as the U.S.-led coalition, which is conducting its own airstrikes in Syria: the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, the al-Qaida-linked Jabbat al-Nusra and other groups.

"I would recall that we always were saying that we are going to fight ISIL and other terrorist groups," he said. "This is the same position which the Americans are taking. The representatives of the coalition command have always been saying that their targets are ISIL, al-Nusra and other terrorist groups. This is basically our position as well. We see eye-to-eye with the coalition on this one."

Lavrov added: "If it looks like a terrorist, if it acts like a terrorist, if it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist, it's a terrorist, right?"

Asked if he agreed with Lavrov, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said: "Well, in concept."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov acknowledged to reporters that, "Of course the goal is to help the Syrian army where it is weakest. Yes, that is right. The weak points are where the Syrian army is fighting against IS and other terrorist groups."

As concerns grew about a conflict that has now drawn in warplanes from the world's two most powerful militaries, Russian President Vladimir Putin denied reports that civilians were killed in any Russian airstrikes.

"We are ready for such information attacks," he said in a live broadcast from the Kremlin. "The first reports of civilian casualties came even before our jets took off."

Lt. Gen. Robert Otto, deputy chief of staff for intelligence and surveillance for the Air Force, said the Russians have been dropping "dumb bombs" - munitions that are not precision-guided. The use of such indiscriminate targeting could lead to the deaths of innocent civilians, he said, and create more terrorists than they kill.

One of the airstrikes hit near a mosque in the city of Jisr al-Shughour, which fell in April to rebel groups including al-Nusra, the Observatory said. A video showed damage to the mosque and a man could be heard saying that one person was killed.

The Pentagon began talks via video teleconference with Russian military officials on ways to avoid U.S. and Russian forces firing on each other in Syria.

Otto said that even as the U.S. tries to ensure Russian airstrikes don't conflict with coalition operations in Syria, he does not believe there will be any real intelligence-sharing with Moscow.

"I have a low level of trust in the Russians. It's trust but verify," he said. "It's easy, then, to exchange factual data where you're going to operate. I would not envision a relationship where I would share some of my intelligence with them."

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said its aircraft damaged or destroyed 12 targets in Syria belonging to the Islamic State group, including a command center and two ammunition depots. Officials acknowledged, however, that other unidentified groups were being targeted as well.

Konashenkov said Russian Su-24M and Su-25 jets flew 20 sorties since Wednesday, and he insisted civilian areas were not targeted. He later said Su-34s also had flown missions.

Hundreds of Chechens and Central Asian fighters have joined the battles in Syria since the early days of the civil war, and many form the backbone of al-Nusra and Islamic State. Some of those Chechen extremists are part of the coalition that controls Idlib.

Putin has said Russia would be fighting "gangs of international terrorists." The Syrian government uses the word "terrorists" to describe all rebel groups.

The U.S. and Russia agree on the need to fight IS but not about what to do with Assad. The Syrian civil war, which grew out of an uprising against the longtime leader, has killed more than 250,000 people since March 2011 and sent millions fleeing elsewhere in the Middle East and Europe.

Lavrov also said Russia did not plan to carry out airstrikes against IS militants in Iraq, which has seen large parts of its territory overrun by the extremists. "We are polite people, we don't come if not invited," Lavrov said.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi told France 24 television he would welcome Russian airstrikes in his country if Moscow made such a proposal, but that it hasn't happened yet.

"If we get the offer, we (will) consider it. In actual fact, I would welcome it," he said, noting that he has been in contact with Putin.

With daily U.S. and allied airstrikes - and now Russian warplanes in Syrian airspace - the war is taking on a dangerous new dimension.

In Paris, Russian Ambassador Alexander Orlov said Russian officials warned the Americans "via confidential channels" of where they planned to strike. He also noted a coordination center was being set up in Baghdad that would include Syrians, Iraqis, Iranians and Russians - and any other country that wants to participate.

Iran's Foreign Ministry said it fully supports Russian airstrikes against "terrorist groups" in Syria.

The "Islamic Republic of Iran considers military action by Russia against armed terrorist groups to be a step toward fighting terrorism and toward resolving the current crisis" in Syria, said ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham in a statement carried by the official IRNA news agency.

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