Vladimir Putin has signed a decree drafting nearly 150,000 conscripts into the Russian military as Moscow’s warplanes unleashed a new wave of airstrikes in Syria.
The timing of the move – on the very day Russia entered the Syrian conflict yesterday – will raise suspicions the Russian President is planning a wider offensive to prop up his Syrian counterpart.
It also comes after one of Putin’s staunchest allies called on him to send in Muslim ground troops to defeat the Islamic State and other Islamist extremist groups.
A spokesman for the Russian President, however, insisted the signing of the decree was not related to the conflict.
‘This is a regular document which the president signs twice a year.’ Dmitry Peskov said in comments reported by Sputnik News.
‘It is not related to Syria in any way, of course, this situation does not concern the draftees in any way.’
It came as Moscow said it had attacked 12 targets belonging to the Islamic State, including a command centre in Hama and an ammunition depots in Idlib, on its second day of bombing runs.
But a Syrian security source said they had also targeted a powerful coalition of Islamist rebels which includes Al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate and which is fiercely opposed to ISIS.
‘Air strikes from four Russian warplanes struck bases held by the Army of Conquest in Jisr al-Shughur and Jabal al-Zawiya in Idlib province,’ the source said, adding that arms depots held by ‘armed groups’ in neighbouring Hama province were also targeted.
A member of the Army of Conquest, which controls Idlib province and has advanced west towards Assad’s coastal heartland of Latakia, said on Twitter that ‘Russian pigs’ had flattened a mosque in Jisr al-Shughur.
A car bomb factory north of Homs was also destroyed, it said.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said airstrikes in the central province of Hama have hit locations of the US-backed rebel group, Tajamu Alezzah.
It said Tajamu Alezzah was also targeted on Wednesday.
A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said earlier that Russia’s airstrikes are targeting not only Islamic State militants but also other extremist groups.
Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Russia is targeting ISIS militants and other ‘well-known’ groups.
Asked whether Russia is choosing its own targets or following the instructions of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Mr Peskov said the targets were chosen ‘in co-ordination’ with the Syrian army.
Meanwhile, a picture emerged today purporting to show heavy Russian military equipment in desert camouflage being sent from Novorossiysk port in southern Russia to Syria.
The image may suggest Russia could be involved in significant land operations.
Patriotic Russian blogger Boris Rozhin said the armour shown on this picture was spotted moving through Krasnodar region towards Novorossiysk, a key Black Sea port.
‘The column is rather big and consists only of new and modern machines – 10 KamAZ-43269 ‘Vystrel’ (BMP-97), about 20 BTR-82, 4 BTR-80, 5 armoured Ural and 1 armoured staff-carrier,’ he wrote.
‘According to the direction, the column was moving towards the port, to be loaded on cargo ships.
‘If you take a close look at the photo and see the colours, you’ll realize that transport painted in this colours can only be used in a desert, where it will blend with Syrian sand. From Russia with love!’
Earlier, one of Vladimir Putin‘s closest allies has called on the Russian president to deploy Muslim ground troops to defeat the Islamic State.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman president of Chechnya, said Moscow should expand its operations in Syria – which began yesterday with controversial airstrikes on anti-government rebels in defiance of the West.
He said: ‘I’m convinced that not only airborne should be used there, but also infantry, because the faster we finish off ISIS, the more peacefully we’ll live across the territory of global community.
‘We Chechens as yet, unfortunately, have no opportunity to participate in the fight against these evil spirits.’
Kadryov, a Sunni Muslim who runs the province with an iron fist and is seen as one of Putin’s most loyal supporters, said Islamic fighters from Chechnya should be sent to combat the jihadis.
The Caucuses region of southern Russia – which includes Chechnya, Daghestan and Ingushetia – has become a hotbed of Islamist extremism in recent years and in the summer a major terror group with 15,000 fighters in the region pledged allegiance to ISIS.
Kadyrov’s comments will be seen as an attempt to defuse further jihadi recruitment by negating the argument that the conflict is fuelled by sectarianism.
That has also been the prevailing factor behind the West’s refusal to put ‘boots on the ground’ in Iraq or Syria, instead choosing to support Muslim troops in combatting ISIS themselves.
Deploying ground troops, however, would plunge relations with the West into further crisis, but so far Putin has ruled out such a move, acutely aware of the Soviet Union’s disastrous decade-long presence in Afghanistan.
Speaking to news outlet gazeta.ru, Kadyrov also claimed Putin had acted in line with international law in contrast to Western action in Syria.
‘I’m sure that it will contribute to ensuring safety in entire world,’ he added.
His comments come after Russia was accused of ‘pouring gasoline on the fire’ of Syria’s civil war after it defied the West to drop bombs over the war-torn state.
More than 20 Russian fighter jets attacked three provinces yesterday after the U.S. was given just one hours’ notice to remove its planes and officials from the area.
The move increased tensions between the two countries after the Washington accused Moscow of only targeting areas held by moderate rebels rather than the Islamic State.
Kadryov runs the formerly war-torn province with an iron fist and is seen as one of Putin’s most loyal allies
Colourful character: The former warlord (centre) seen in a bizarre Instagram snap cuddling a tiger which even has lead round its neck. The brutal reality of how Kadyrov maintains his grip on power has frequently been glossed over by his social media skills and his voracious appetite for posting on picture-sharing websites
Hobnobbing with the stars: Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov with actress Liz Hurley and a kitten. The Austin Powers star was in Grozny to shoot thriller Turquoise when the snap was taken in May 2013
Kadyrov shows off his extensive collection of weapons in August 2005. He says Moscow should massively expand its operations in Syria – which began yesterday with controversial airstrikes on anti-Assad rebels
RUSSIAN EMBASSY TAUNTS THE UK OVER ‘ILLEGITIMATE’ WAR IN SYRIA
Russia’s UK embassy has taunted Britain over claims it is conducting an ‘illegitimate’ campaign in Syria.
In a tweet on its official account to Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, it said: ‘Russian actions in Syria are legitimate by international law, unlike those of others.
‘We’re are acting on government request.’
The message refers to a request made by Syrian President Bashar Al Assad for support in its four-year civil war.
Syrian opposition chief Khaled Khoja said 36 civilians had been killed in the attacks, which also apparently targeted a CIA-vetted Syrian rebel group that was receiving U.S. missiles.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov today rejected the claims, insisting: ‘The rumours that the target of these airstrikes are not ISIS positions are unfounded.’
The Russian defence ministry said it carried out 20 flight missions and hit eight ISIS targets.
Lavrov said the Russian military only went after ‘terrorist groups’ and said that Moscow had requested that American officials back up their accusations with firm evidence.
Speaking to journalists on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, he said the Russian Air Forces were co-operating with the Syrian pro-government military to target ‘exclusively’ ISIS targets.
Airstrikes: Russian jets have begun raids in Syria after apparently only giving the U.S. an hour to remove its planes and officials from the area. Pictured: Footage shows rockets hitting the Homs province of Syria
Explosion: The Russian Defence Ministry said it carried out 20 flights over Syria on Wednesday but concerns were raised they were targeting anti-government rebels, many of whom are backed by the U.S.-led coalition
He said he had ‘no data’ on civilian casualties.
U.S. Defence Secretary Ash Carter yesterday said Moscow’s entry into the bloody conflict was akin to ‘pouring gasoline on the fire’.
He added: ‘The Russian approach here is doomed to fail. I hope that they come over to a point of view where they try to pursue their objectives in a different way that makes more sense.’
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian also said of the strikes: ‘Curiously, they didn’t hit Islamic State. I will let you draw a certain number of conclusions yourselves.’
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington was prepared to welcome Russian military action in Syria as long as it is directed against ISIS and other Al Qaeda affiliates, but would have ‘grave concerns’ if it conducted strikes against other groups.
The U.S. and Russia both agree on the need to fight the Islamic State but not about what to do with Assad.
The Syrian civil war, which grew out of an uprising against Assad, has killed more than 250,000 people since March 2011 and sent millions of refugees fleeing to other countries in the Middle East and Europe.
Strikes: Footage showed plumes of smoke rising above the rubble as Russian jets targeted part of Syria
A Western-backed Syrian rebel group confirmed that at least one of its leading officers had been killed in the airstrikes in the central Homs province. Pictured: Footage from the ground in Syria after rockets hit Homs
Blast: Locals run for cover as Russian airstrikes target three areas of Syria, although not ISIS-held territory
The strikes hit Rastan, Talbisseh and Zaafarani in Homs (shown on graphic) but concerns were raised that ISIS-held areas were not targeted by the Russian forces
Russia and United States agreed to call urgent military talks to head off the risk of clashes between their forces after Moscow’s dramatic entrance into the Syrian war.
Senior U.S. officials expressed alarm after Russian warplanes began their first military engagement outside the former Soviet Union since the occupation of Afghanistan in 1979.
The Americans accused Russia of striking moderate rebel factions fighting Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime under cover of their claimed assault on the Islamic State group.
And they complained the U.S-led coalition already fighting its own air war against the jihadists had only been given a heads-up by a Russian general in Baghdad one hour before bombing began.
But, after sharp public comments in Washington and the United Nations, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian opposite number Sergei Lavrov put a brave face on the dispute.
Appearing together on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, they said they would hold ‘de-confliction’ talks and had drawn up proposals to relaunch a Syrian political peace process.
‘We agreed on the imperative of as soon as possible – perhaps even as soon as tomorrow, but as soon as possible – having a military to military de-confliction discussion,’ Kerry said.
Lavrov agreed their talks had been useful and both men said they would take their ideas for the political process back to their respective presidents, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the U.S’s Barack Obama.
Bombers: Video footage emerged that claims to show Russian jets targeting areas in Hama Province in Syria which are controlled by moderate rebel groups supported by the U.S.-led coalition and not ISIS
Blitzed: The video claims to show the aftermath of aerial bombings in the Syrian province of Hama. A U.S. official said the Russian air strikes so far did not appear to be targeting ISIS-held territory
Obliterated: Damaged buildings and a minaret are seen in the Syrian town of Talbisseh in Homs province after Russian airstrikes targeted rebel-held territory in co-ordinated strikes with Syrian fighter planes
The Russian strikes had hit Rastan and Talbisseh (above), neither of which has an Islamic State presence
But the narrow agreement to seek a mechanism to avoid accidental encounters between Russian and U.S.-led forces could not disguise the deep divisions Moscow’s actions had revealed.
Both Moscow and Damascus presented the operation as targeting Islamic State militants, an idea disputed by U.S. officials.
And he warned that Russia’s arrival in the bloody four-year-long civil war would ‘backfire’ and only serve to prolong the conflict.
Kerry told the United Nations Security Council that there would be ‘grave concern’ in Washington if it turned out the targets were opposition fighter and not ISIS or Al-Qaeda, as claimed.
France, which on Sunday launched its first air strike against ISIS in Syria, also raised doubts over Russia’s objectives, echoing concerns that Moscow’s aims simply to keep Assad in power.
But the head of Syria’s main opposition group told AFP that one bombing run killed 36 civilians – including five children – in central Homs province.
‘The Russians struck northern Homs today and killed 36 innocent people… who fought against extremism,’ said Khaled Khoja, head of the National Coalition.
Western powers consider Assad’s military responsible for the vast majority of the 240,000 deaths in the war, and say his presence makes a political settlement impossible.
Divisions: After sharp public comments in Washington and the United Nations, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian opposite number Sergei Lavrov try to put a brave face on the dispute
This satellite image taken on September 23 shows a build-up of Russian aircraft around Bassel Al Assad Air Base in Syria, as Moscow defied the West by increasing its military presence in support of President Assad
This satellite image taken on September 23 shows tanks and armoured vehicles at Bassel Al Assad Air Base
This image shows the Istamo weapons storage facility near the Syrian town of Latakia, where large concrete surfaces have been put in place or are under construction and the assembly of a potential fuel depot is underway, according to Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence and advisory firm in Austin, Texas
Russia, meanwhile, is urging countries to join an intelligence task force Moscow is setting up with Iran, Iraq and Syria, arguing that supporting Assad’s government is the only way to defeat ISIS.
Putin, who obtained parliamentary permission to use force abroad just hours before the strikes, warned that Moscow would hunt down IS militants before they target Russia.
He pledged his country would not get sucked into a protracted military campaign and chief of staff Sergei Ivanov said the operation would be time-limited and not involve ground forces.
Putin also said Assad should be ready for compromise with the opposition, ‘for the sake of his country and his people.’
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg expressed consternation.
‘I’m especially concerned because there has been no real effort by the Russian side to de-conflict the Russian air strikes in Syria,’ he said, referring to the limited advance warning.
Putin wants to muscle his way back onto the world stage after months of Western isolation following Russia’s seizure of Crimea and support for a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine.
Russia’s powerful Orthodox Church voiced support for Moscow’s air strikes, calling it a ‘holy battle,’ but some in Russia dared to accuse the Kremlin of short-sightedness.
Alexander Konovalov of the Strategic Analysis Institute said Russia wanted to end its diplomatic isolation and may not realise the long-term consequences of intervention in the Middle East.
‘We were going to Afghanistan for six months and stayed there for 10 years,’ he told AFP, referring to a conflict that killed over 14,000 Soviet troops between 1979 and 1989.
Sixty-nine percent of Russians are against Moscow’s deployment of troops in Syria, with just 14 percent in favour, according to a recent poll by the Levada Centre.