Russia begins conducting airstrikes in Syria, US official says – Washington Post

Russian warplanes launched airstrikes in Syria on Wednesday, a U.S. official said, after Russia’s parliament granted President Vladi­mir Putin authorization to use military force in the multi-layered conflict.

A U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss Russian operations, told The Washington Post that Russia began conducting airstrikes in Syria. It was not immediately clear whether it was one airstrike or multiple sorties, the official said.

CNN, citing U.S. officials, said the air attack struck near the Syrian city of Homs.

The move by Russian lawmakers capped a speedy military and diplomatic effort by Russia in recent weeks to bolster the government of Bashar al-Assad, a longtime Moscow ally who is deadlocked in a bloody war with secular and Islamist rebel groups.

Kremlin officials said that Assad had requested Russian military support and that Russian planes would strike targets in Syria at the Syrian government’s request. Putin has also urged for an international coalition to battle the Islamic State, which holds territory in Syria and Iraq.

But the deeper engagement could complicate the outreach between Washington and Moscow over defense issues, including efforts to open channels to avoid possible conflicts in the web of battles in Syria.

The United States and NATO allies have expressed concern at the widening Russian military role in support of Assad. At the same time, American warplanes and others wage airstrikes against ­Islamic State positions in Syria.

Assad’s forces are also blamed by the West and others for crackdowns and attacks that have forced millions to flee the country — and now joining a wave of migrants and asylum seeking pouring into Europe.

“Russia will factually be the only country to carry out this operation on the legitimate basis of the request of the legitimate government of Syria,” Dmitri S. Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, told journalists after the vote.

A U.S.-led coalition has launched thousands of airstrikes in Syria in the past year, and the United States has armed and trained some of the anti-Assad rebels. Peskov did not answer when asked if Russian forces had already begun to launch strikes in Syria.

Russia’s authorization to use force is expected to complicate Western policy in Syria, and has raised concerns of an accidental conflict between U.S.-led coalition aircraft and a Russian troop deployment that includes jet interceptors and surface-to-air missiles.

The resolution came without warning in the Federation Council, Russia’s higher body of parliament, where 162 senators voted unanimously in support after a closed-door discussion — similar to the vote last year to green light Russian military force in Ukraine.

In a brief statement, the Kremlin said that Putin had requested the authorization to use force “on the basis of universally recognized principles and norms of international law.”

“The atmosphere was entirely one of solidarity,” Oleg Morozov, a member of the Federation Council, said of the debate. “There were no questions that might have influenced this atmosphere.”

Sergei Ivanov, the Kremlin Chief of Staff, said on national television that the resolution was strictly limited to the use of Russian aviation in Syria and that ground troops would not be sent into battle.

“We are not discussing achieving foreign policy goals or fulfilling the ambitions that our western partners regularly accuse us of,” said Ivanov. “We are exclusively discussing the national interests of the Russian Federation.”

While Russia has supplied arms to Assad for years, a direct military intervention seemed unlikely until early this month, when Russian aircraft, tanks, artillery, and troops were spotted in the port of Latakia, an Assad stronghold.

Putin continued to keep Western leaders off-balance by calling for a broad coalition with the Syrian government to fight the Islamic State, and opening an intelligence-sharing hub in Baghdad with Iraq, Syria and Iran.

The moves led to a one-on-one meeting with President Obama at the United Nations General Assembly this week, although Obama had shunned Putin over the Ukraine crisis.

Asked at the United Nations in New York on Monday whether he would consider using airstrikes in Syria, Putin said “we do not rule out anything, but if we act, we will do it in strict compliance with the international law.” He did rule out the use of ground forces in Syria.

Critics say that the Kremlin is using the Syrian crisis to escape international isolation following its annexation of the Crimean peninsula last March, and to divert attention at home from the conflict in Ukraine’s southeast between Kiev and Russian-backed separatists.

The last time the Federation Council held a similar vote was in March 2014, when the legislative body voted unanimously to grant Putin the right to use military force in Ukraine.

At that time, Russian troops without identifying marks had appeared in Crimea (the peninsula was annexed by Russia several weeks later). Russia has never admitted sending its military into Ukraine, although Ukraine and the West have accused it of intervening on behalf of separatists in the country’s southeast.

The Federation Council repealed authorization to use the armed forces in Ukraine in June 2014 at Putin’s request.

“For Russian forces to operate there legitimately . . . a law was needed,” military expert Ivan Konovalov told the Reuters news agency, referring to a technical requirement under Russian law.

Deane reported from London. Missy Ryan and Thomas Gibbons-Neff in Washington contributed to this report.

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