Moscow operation shatters three weeks of relative calm in rebel-held parts of Syrian city
Russia resumed air strikes on the besieged rebel-held sections of Aleppo, Syria, on Tuesday, as it began a major new offensive against insurgents battling Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, said it had started “a big operation to deliver massive strikes” against Islamic State and the Levant Victory Front, formerly known as the Nusra Front, in Idlib and Homs provinces.
Jets taking off from Russia’s aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, conducted their first strikes on Syria, the Russian military said, noting that its forces were hitting targets in the two provinces. It was unclear whether the strikes on Aleppo were by Russian or by Syrian government warplanes.
The fighting shattered the relative calm that had prevailed in the rebel-held eastern parts of Aleppo for about three weeks.
“Our house is being shaken,” Modar Sheikho, a nurse and anti-government activist in rebel-held Aleppo, said in a text message. “The warplane is still in the sky.” He shared an audio recording with the roar of a plane and the sound of explosions.
Residents reported air strikes on at least five Aleppo neighbourhoods. The extent of the casualties was unclear, but they appeared to include at least three civilians, including a woman, who were killed in the neighbourhood of Masaken Hanano, and 10 others wounded. There were conflicting reports about whether the attack had consisted of barrel bombs, which are usually dropped from helicopters, or an assault by fighter jets.
Launching cruise missiles
“Since this morning, until now, dozens of shells and rockets have bombed Aleppo,” Mohammad al-Sheghal, a resident of eastern Aleppo, said in a text message, adding that he believed that the planes were Russian fighter jets.
Mr Shoigu, at a meeting in Sochi, Russia, with President Vladimir Putin, said that a Russian warship, the Admiral Grigorovich, was taking part in this operation, launching cruise missiles against insurgent targets.
“For the first time in the history of Russian navy, the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier took part in combat, too,” he said.
“Today, our Su-33 fighter jets began to work from this warship.” Shoigu also briefed Mr Putin on what he called the use of chemical weapons by the insurgents. The Russian military said that chemical weapons used by insurgents had caused three deaths of Syrian soldiers, and the hospitalisation of dozens of soldiers.
The fighting broke out a day after Mr Putin spoke to US president-elect Donald Trump and agreed to co-operate on fighting “international terrorism and extremism,” according to a Kremlin statement.
That declaration echoed Mr Trump’s recent comments that he would try to work with Moscow and with Mr Assad to fight against Islamic State, also known as Isis.
Mr Trump’s comments concerning Syria also received a favourable reaction Tuesday from the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura. “What he’s been saying is quite interesting,” Mr de Mistura said, speaking on the BBC’s “Hardtalk” programme.
“The focus, the priority, is Daesh, fighting terrorism. Second to do, if possible, a deal with Russia. Both points make a lot of sense.”
The diplomat said he had yet to speak directly to Mr Trump or his associates. He also emphasised that in his view, the Syria conflict still required “a completely new approach to what is a political solution”.
The Syrian government has tended to call all its opponents terrorists, and Russia makes little distinction among the different groups fighting Mr Assad.
A constant sticking point has been that some of the rebels that the United States has supported have made battlefield alliances with al-Qaeda-linked groups considered terrorists by Moscow and Washington alike.
Mr de Mistura has estimated that perhaps a few hundred of the 10,000 or so fighters inside besieged eastern Aleppo are affiliated with al-Qaeda; rebels say that number is lower and the government says it is higher.
The Obama administration has said that fighting Islamic State is the priority of the United States, not toppling Mr Assad – though that is another stated US aim.
Under President Barack Obama, the US government has continued to support some rebel groups that Washington deems not to be extremist, and it has shunned direct co-operation with Moscow and Damascus, contending that their campaign in Syria has been focused less on defeating extremists and more on battling opposition groups fighting Assad.
The Obama administration has also condemned what it says is indiscriminate bombing by the Syrian government and its Russian allies. A change in US policy under Mr Trump, who is to take office in January, could involve a shift toward direct co-operation with Mr Assad and with Russia against Islamic State. – (New York Times service)