Russia airstrikes in Syria: Anxiety grows as Britain tries to verify where bombs struck

Foreign Secretary says the strikes become a 'very different issue' if Russia is acting in support of President Assad

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Britain is desperately trying to verify precisely where Russian bombs struck in Syria today, as anxiety grew that Moscow’s intervention could further destabilise an already chaotic situation.

Phillip Hammond, the UK Foreign Secretary, told reporters in New York that it was “one thing” if Russia was bombing Isis targets in Syria but was a “very different issue” if its operations were carried out in support of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

“We are just trying to establish now exactly what the Russians have done,” he said. 

If what Russia is doing is carrying out airstrikes in defence of the Assad regime, that’s a very different issue

UK Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond

“We are clear that if the Russians want to join with the coalition  or working alongside the coalition in air strikes on Isil we welcome that principle that’s welcome. If what Russia is doing is carrying out airstrikes in defence of the regime, that’s a very different issue.”

Russia said its airstrikes targeted positions, vehicles and warehouses that Moscow believes belong to Isis militants, ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov told Russian news agencies. 

President Vladimir Putin sought to portray the airstrikes as a pre-emptive attack against the Islamic militants who have taken over large parts of Syria and Iraq. Russia estimates at least 2,400 of its citizens are already fighting with extremists in Syria and Iraq. 

“If [the militants] succeed in Syria, they will return to their home country, and they will come to Russia, too,” Mr Putin said in a televised speech at a government session. 

State Department spokesman John Kirby told the Associated Press that a Russian official in Baghdad informed US Embassy personnel on Wednesday that Russian military aircraft would shortly begin flying anti-Isis missions over Syria. The Russian official also asked that US aircraft avoid Syrian airspace during those missions on Wednesday. 

However, the US has said it is going to continue its own operations. 

“The US-led coalition will continue to fly missions over Iraq and Syria as planned and in support of our international mission to degrade and destroy ISIL,” he said, using another acronym for the Islamic militants.

Russia has been steadily building up its military presence in Syria, in a move that has been seen as defiant defence of Mr Assad, its long-time ally. It it has been sending jets and military vehicles to an airpot in Latakia, a stronghold of Mr Assad.

A screengrab of footage claiming to show the aftermath of air strikes by a Russian plane in Tabliseh, Syria, on 30 September 2015

Earlier this month, defense chiefs from the United States and Russia held their first direct talks in more than a year, reflecting Washington’s mounting alarm about Russian military escalation in Syria and how it might affect the fight against the Islamic State.

The 50-minute phone call between Defence Secretary Ashton Carter and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, took place as dozens of Russian fighter jets appeared at a military base on Syria’s coast, adding to a growing arsenal of artillery and tanks as well as military personnel.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said military talks with Russia would “help to define some of the different options that are available to us as we consider next steps in Syria.”