Turkey's Erdogan says Russian airstrikes in Syria 'unacceptable'

Turkey's Erdogan says Russian airstrikes in Syria 'unacceptable'
Russian airstrikes that have targeted foreign-back rebels in Syria are unacceptable Turkey's president said on Sunday, as Moscow said it plans to intensify its attacks.
6 min read
04 October, 2015
Russia says it is targeting the IS group and al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate [Getty]

Turkey's president says Russian airstrikes that have targeted some foreign-back rebels in Syria are unacceptable and warned Moscow that it runs the risk of alienating itself in the region. 

Recep Tayyip Erdogan said before departing for France on Sunday that Russia was making a "grave mistake" and that Turkey was "saddened and perturbed" by its actions.

On Friday, Turkey and its allies issued a joint statement asking Moscow to cease attacks on the Syrian opposition and to focus on fighting IS. 

Ealier, air strikes by suspected Russian jets hit targets around the town of Talbiseh in western Syria on Sunday, residents and a group which monitors the civil war in Syria said, a day after Russia promised to step up its air campaign.

Ambulances rushed wounded people to hospital in Talbiseh, north of the city of Homs, and one resident said at least five bodies had been recovered from the western part of the town.

"So far there are seven or six raids in the town," said Abdul Ghafar al Dweik, a former government employee and volunteer rescue worker.

He said he believed the raid was carried out by Russian jets. "They come suddenly... With the Syrian planes, we would get a warning but now all of a sudden we see it over our heads," he said.

Russian jets attacked Islamic State and other fighters in Syria with a wave of new airstrikes on Saturday.

A senior Russian military officer said Russian jets based in western Syria had carried out more than 60 sorties in 72 hours across Syria. "We will not only continue strikes... We will also increase their intensity," said Andrei Kartapolov from the Russian army General Staff.

The new airstrikes came as residents of Syria's central regions fear the Russians are paving the way for a ground offensive by the government on several towns in the central province of Hama and the north western region of Idlib where the Syrian army suffered major setbacks over the past months, activists said. 

In Damascus, an unnamed Syrian military official was quoted by state TV as saying that the "concentrated and precise" airstrikes destroyed a command center in the central town of Latamneh in Hama province and targeted positions in the northwestern areas of Jisr al-Shughour and Maaret al-Numan.

The IS group has no presence in the north western province of Idlib, which includes Jisr al-Shughour and Maaret al-Numan.  

     At least some of the strikes appear to have hit Western-backed rebels.

The Russian airstrikes that began Wednesday have mainly targeted central and northwestern Syria, strategic regions that are the gateway to President Bashar Assad's strongholds in the capital, Damascus, and along the Mediterranean coast.  

Russia says it is targeting the IS group and al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, but at least some of the strikes appear to have hit Western-backed rebel factions. 

Civilians killed

Later Saturday the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said warplanes believed to be Russian attacked the central town of Hobeit in Idlib province.

The air raid came as hundreds of people fled their homes in areas near Hobeit fearing a ground offensive by government forces, activists said. 

Turkey-based activists Mohammed Kanaan and Ahmad al-Ahmad said the army has informed residents of the nearby village of Kfar Nabboudeh, that agreed to a truce with government forces months ago, that troops want to pass through the village on their way to the rebel-held areas of Hobeit and Khan Sheikhoun.

Both activists said that the army has informed residents of Kfar Nabboudeh through mediators that no one in the village will be harmed unless they attack government forces.

"There is intense shelling on the areas in preparation for a ground offensive," al-Ahmad, who is in contact with activists on the ground, said via Skype. He added that many people fled from the two rebel-held areas toward northern regions close to the Turkish border.

Kanaan said the Russians warplanes have "massive destruction strength." He added that militants in the southern Idlib and northern Hama are getting prepared to fight against troops once the offensive begins.

The Observatory's chief Rami Abdurrahman said the first three days of Russian airstrikes on Syria have killed 39 civilians and 14 militants without saying whether the fighters included IS members.

The Observatory said that Russian warplanes struck a hospital in the mountains of the coastal province of Latakia causing damage but no casualties. 

International charity group Doctors Without Borders, also known as MSF, said the hospital was formerly run by the group but has since been handed over to local medical groups.

"What we can confirm is that the hospital has been damaged by strikes, but the staff has been able to evacuate safely and there are no causalities," said Yazan Al-Saadi, MSF's spokeswoman in Beirut.

Russian Defense Ministry could not immediately be reached for comment.

Baghdad, Cairo welcome strikes

In Iraq, Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi told reporters that Baghdad welcomes the idea of Russian warplanes attacking IS in Iraq as well. 

Cairo too declared its support for Russia's intervention in Syria with Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry saying  that it will curtail the spread of terrorism and help deal a fatal blow to Islamic State in Syria. 

"Russia's entrance, given its potential and capabilities, is something we see is going to have an effect on limiting terrorism in Syria and eradicating it," Shoukry said in a televised interview on Saturday.

Egypt has avoided showing support for al-Assad, a leader whom Saudi Arabia, a key Egyptian ally that has propped up the country economically, believes should be ousted. 

Shoukry's comments are just the latest sign of warming relations between Russia and Egypt. In a state visit to Russia by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in August, the two countries called for a coalition to fight terrorism in the Middle East.  

Politically, the main Western-backed opposition group and dozens of rebel factions said a plan by the UN chief envoy to end Syria's civil war will not work in its present form and needs major amendments.

The National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces said the amendments needed to make it clear that Assad and top officials in his authority have no place in any political process and that government security agencies be dissolved.

The statement issued late Friday came hours after Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said his country will participate in UN led working groups toward a third round of Geneva talks on the fate of the country.

Al-Moallem stressed that the working groups proposed by the UN's special envoy on Syria, Staffan de Mistura, are non-binding. The foreign minister described them as "brainstorming" sessions meant to prepare for the launch of new talks sometime in the future.

The rebel groups that signed the statement included the powerful Ahrar al-Sham and Islam Army.

The statement said the Russian airstrikes show that Moscow, which hosted several rounds of talks between rival Syrian groups, "was never a fair mediator but part of the conflict and a main ally for the criminal regime."