As Russian forces sustained their aerial strikes on targets in Syria, Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said on 12 October that Russian aerial reconnaissance flights and satellites are searching for new Islamic State (IS) infrastructure targets to be destroyed later.
Konashenkov said that Russian Sukhoi Su-24M and Su-34 bombers and Su-25SM assault aircraft carried out the air strikes in the provinces of Homs, Hama, Latakia and Idlib, with Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets providing air escort for the assault groups.
The Sukhoi Su-30 fighters were included in the air group of the Russian Aerospace Forces in Syria only days before.
The defence ministry spokesperson said that in recent days terrorists have been making “frantic efforts to pull weapons, munitions and fuel from Raqqa province to the line of engagement with the Syrian army” as a result of the Russian bombardment. He reported that a guided KAB-500 air bomb delivered by a Su-24M bomber completely destroyed an underground command headquarters in Hama.
He added that on 12 October Russian experts were to undertake a follow-up patrol aboard an Antonov An-30B reconnaissance plan, passing through Turkish airspace and using Diyarbakir and Eskisehir airports in accordance with the open skies agreement.
Washington, too, entered the scene, with an airdrop to opposition fighters in the areas where Russia has been staging its raids. The spokesman for US Central Command (Centcom) announced on Monday that the US had airdropped munitions in northern Syria to opposition fighters engaging IS forces.
The “successful” air operation carried out by the coalition provided munitions to Syrian Arab groups, the officials responsible for which were subject to appropriate screening operations by the US, said Colonel Patrick Ryder.
Syrian opposition leaders confirmed that the US informed the opposition that new weapons were on their way to help them mount a joint assault with their Kurdish allies against the city of Raqqa which is controlled by IS.
In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Qassem Al-Khatib, a member of the Syrian opposition coalition, said that the group opposes Russian intervention in Syria, saying that it has upset all their calculations on the ground.
“We, as representatives from the spectrum of the Syrian opposition, came to Cairo for the conferences on 1 and 2 October in which we announced our condemnation of the violence, because over the past four years — and we are now in the fifth year — we have reached the conviction that a military solution is impossible,” said Al-Khatib.
“Therefore, the political solution is what can lead us to the road of a solution to the current worsening crisis. We went to Moscow with the same team and met with Mr Lavrov … We told [him] that we have an opportunity for a political solution and that we hoped that this would be the forthcoming course. But we were then surprised by the Russian military intervention in Syria, which we reject.”
What is the coalition’s assessment of the impact on the ground of the Russian intervention?
“We had no prior knowledge of the matter, but we were not totally surprised. Today, Russian intervention has made things much more complicated at many levels since their intervention is not against IS as they claim.
“In fact, to the contrary, the Russian strikes are targeting the Free Army on the Syrian coast and in the areas of Hama, Homs and Aleppo, rather than Deir Al-Zor and Raqqa where IS is embedded. The Russians’ concept of military intervention in Syria is to protect and entrench Bashar Al-Assad.”
In light of the new de facto realities imposed by Russian intervention, how would the coalition handle these in the future? Would it consider a Geneva 3 conference in which Al-Assad is a part of the political solution?
“Never. Al-Assad cannot be part of the solution in the interim phase. We have no objection to going to a Geneva 3, and we have the Cairo Document, which forms groundwork for a political solution and to which we remain committed. But we cannot accept Al-Assad after the dozens of thousands of lives that were lost, the more than a million and a half people that were displaced, and the destruction of Syria.”
Russia triggered a sharp division regionally and internationally. What actions does the coalition envision in light of the new realities Russia has created in the battle arena?
“We will act together with our friends, the Syrian people. Yes, the international community has become divided on the cause. Some parties announce their positions frankly, others make it known beneath the table. We have actions with the French and actions with Saudi Arabia and there are communications with international institutions concerned with the issue.”
What about Egypt, which recently announced its support for the Russian strikes?
“Yes, that is Egypt’s position from the standpoint of its particular interests. However, I believe that Egypt is with us when we seek a political solution. The problem is with Russia, which has become a party to the crisis instead of proposing a just solution.”
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, have officially softened their stances on the Russian intervention. Saudi Defence Minister Mohamed Bin Salman Al-Saud met with President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on Sunday on the sidelines of a Formula-1 race.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir stated that Riyadh is keen to improve relations with Moscow and reach common ground that will safeguard the unity of Syria. He added: “Riyadh, in its perspective on ways to resolve the Syrian crisis, still insists that the Syrian president must leave and continues to support the moderate Syrian opposition.”
President Putin, for his part, said that the Russian intervention aims to pave the way to a political solution.
The UN envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has cautioned that the Syrian state could collapse. Military escalation could lead to “partition, which de facto is already being seen as a possibility,” he warned in a news conference in Geneva.
He added: “At the same time, the situation could move into a toxic type of cocktail, a combination of a creeping Afghanistan with shades of Libya and Somalia.”
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly