Oct 22, 2015 11:02 PM

Russia shows military might in Syria, also pushes diplomacy

The Associated Press

HEMEIMEEM AIR BASE, Syria (AP) As Russia unleashed waves of warplanes Thursday from this air base in western Syria to pound militant targets, President Vladimir Putin pushed diplomatic efforts with the West, stressing the need "to consider each other as allies in a common fight."

Russia put its military muscle on display, bringing Moscow-based reporters to view a day's worth of fighter jets roaring off a runway in dozens of sorties as helicopter gunships patrolled the edges of the sprawling facility.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet Friday in Vienna, joined by their counterparts from Saudi Arabia and Turkey, both staunch critics of President Bashar Assad.

Lavrov said he wanted to provide "firsthand information" about the Russian air campaign against Islamic State militants in Syria, but also talk about a future political process in the country that is now in its fifth year of civil war.

The U.S. and other Western powers have questioned Russia's primary motive in the airstrikes that began Sept. 30 and have backed up a Syrian government offensive in central and northwestern regions. Moscow says it is fighting IS and other extremist groups like the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, but Washington and others say the intervention is to prop up Assad and is likely to fan the violence.

The intervention is also allowing Russia to portray itself as a major global player, projecting its military power far from its borders.

Assad met Tuesday with Putin in a surprise visit to Moscow to discuss the military operations. In a speech Thursday at a conference in Russia's southern resort of Sochi, Putin said Syria's leaders "should establish working contacts with those opposition forces that are ready for dialogue."

"As I understood from my conversation with President Assad the day before yesterday, he is ready for such a dialogue," Putin added.

A military victory over the militants "will not solve all problems, but it will create conditions for the main thing: a beginning of a political process to encompass all healthy, patriotic forces of the Syrian society," Putin said.

His words echoed those of Syrian government officials who have expressed readiness to negotiate with the "patriotic" opposition a term generally used to describe unarmed, mostly Damascus-based government critics who are tolerated by Assad.

Putin also said Russia and the West are establishing contacts to coordinate their operations.

"We are close to the start of exchanging information with our Western counterparts on positions and movements of the militants. This is certainly a step in the right direction. The most important thing is to consider each other as allies in a common fight."

Putin said he asked Assad about how he would view it if Russia identified Syrian armed opposition groups "prepared to oppose and really fight terrorists, IS. How would you regard it if we support their efforts in the fight with terrorism in the way that we are supporting the Syrian army?"

He said Assad responded: "I regard this positively."

The Kremlin said Putin also talked on the phone with the leaders of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan ahead of the Friday session.

Lavrov said in televised remarks that Moscow is eager to invite other countries from the region to the talks, especially Iran another supporter of Assad.

Although Lavrov said that Russia had agreed to meet with the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Turkey, he reiterated that Moscow "remained convinced" that a settlement of the Syrian crisis had no future without the involvement of Iran.

In Berlin, Kerry said the U.S., Iran, Russia and Europe agree Syria should be united and that Syrians should choose their own future leadership, but "one thing stands in the way of being able to rapidly move to implement that and it's a person called Assad, Bashar Assad."

Kerry spoke alongside German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who said that finding a road to a political solution "depends on whether Washington and Moscow find bridges to each other."

During Thursday's visit to the Hemeimeem base near the coastal city of Latakia, reporters saw dozens of sorties from early morning until late at night. Su-24s, Su-25s and Su-34s took off for bombing raids against militant targets, while Su-30 fighter jets provided cover. A giant An-124 Ruslan cargo plane landed, and two Il-76 military transports could be seen on the tarmac.

Security forces with assault rifles guarded key facilities, and armored personnel carriers were parked nearby. Rows of prefabricated houses for servicemen were flanked by neatly kept canteens serving fish soup, pasta, beef and other dishes.

Defense Ministry spokesman Maj.-Gen. Igor Konashenkov said that in the past 24 hours, Russian planes made 53 sorties, hitting 72 targets mostly weapons and ammunition depots and other infrastructure.

Konashenkov rejected Western allegations that Russia has mostly targeted other groups opposing Assad instead of the Islamic State. He said Russian planes were striking weapons depots and facilities making preparations for attacks by rigging cars with bombs and making suicide belts of explosives.

"I don't understand how terrorists could be divided into good and bad ones," he told reporters.

He also dismissed reports that Russian planes were hitting civilians as lies and "sheer nonsense." He said the warplanes are not striking populated areas and are only aiming at infrastructure such as depots and bunkers but only after the targets are repeatedly verified using various intelligence sources.

In conducting the air campaign, Putin's apparent goals are to help cement the Syrian government's grip on the territory it still controls and to show that Assad cannot be unseated by force. Russia also wants to foster political talks that could preserve the Syrian state and allow Moscow to protect its interests in the region.

Another Putin goal has been to bring Moscow and Washington together for a security dialogue in which Russia is treated as an equal. The hope is that this would improve ties with the West and end Russia's isolation that resulted from the crisis in Ukraine.

State-owned pollster VTsIOM on Thursday released its latest survey on Putin's approval rating, which it said had reached an all-time high of nearly 90 percent. VTsIOM, which in the past has reported higher approval ratings for Putin than independent agencies, said the survey of 1,600 people was conducted Saturday and Sunday, and had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.


Associated Press writers Nataliya Vasilyeva and Jim Heintz in Moscow, Geir Moulson and Matthew Lee in Berlin, and Vladimir Kondrashov at Hemeimeem Air Base in Syria contributed to this report.


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