Damascus slams charges of targeting civilians
BEIRUT: Syria has lashed out at what it called “fabricated” U.S. accusations that its forces are targeting civilians with airstrikes, amid a sharp uptick in regime attacks – nearly 2,000 in the last 40 days, according to an anti-regime monitoring group.
“The Syrian Arab Army does not target civilians and will not do so,” state news agency SANA quoted Information Minister Omran Zoubi as saying late Thursday.
Zoubi was responding to criticism from the U.S. State Department, which said it was “horrified” by Syrian government bombings in Raqqa province that, it said, had killed “dozens of civilians and demolished residential areas.”
Tuesday’s government strikes on the city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS jihadis in Syria, killed 95 civilians, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime group, reported.
Zoubi said Washington would do better to criticize hard-line ISIS militants who have killed American citizens, adding that Washington had received its information from “terrorist organizations” in Syria such as ISIS and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.
Both the Syrian military and U.S.-led forces are bombing Syrian targets in separate campaigns and both say they are pursuing militant groups.
“The U.S. State Department should rather have shown respect for the … American victims at the hands of terrorists from ISIS and not directed fabricated accusations toward the Syrian state, which has been facing terrorism for years,” Zoubi was quoted by SANA as saying.
Three U.S. civilians – two journalists and an aid worker – have been beheaded by ISIS.
“Everyone has to choose between two options – either you are with terrorism, ISIS, the Nusra Front and others, or you are countering terrorism,” Zoubi said.
The Observatory said the regime could be “listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for … carrying out some 2,000 airstrikes against its people in the past 40 days.”
The group, which relies on a broad network of activists and medics on the ground for its information, said the raids had killed at least 527 civilians and wounded 2,000 others.
The Syrian air force first launched airstrikes against rebel-held areas in July 2012, when the government lost control of swathes of Aleppo.
It has since pounded areas across the country on a daily basis, often with crude “barrel bombs” dropped from helicopters.
“In the past 40 days alone, there have been strikes against parts of 12 of Syria’s 14 provinces,” said Rami Abdel-Rahman, the Observatory’s head. “Millions of people have fled their homes because of the strikes, becoming internally displaced or refugees in neighboring countries.”
Syria’s air force currently has 275 warplanes, having lost 87 aircraft last year, some shot down by rebels, according to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. The United Nations and rights groups have repeatedly urged all sides in Syria’s war to refrain from using weapons that fail to discriminate between military and civilian targets.
The Observatory Friday reported six regime airstrikes on villages in the southern province of Deraa that killed six people, while a local activist group said at least 20 people, among them a woman and four children, had been killed, mostly by barrel bomb strikes.
Anti-regime activists in Hama province, meanwhile, reported a huge explosion at the military airport outside the city, attributing the incident to a blast in a depot used to store barrel bombs.
Separately, the U.S. military and its allies hit ISIS forces with 15 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria during a three-day period, the U.S. Central Command said.
Thirteen attacks have been carried out in Iraq since Wednesday and two more targeted ISIS militants in Syria. The airstrikes in Syria hit an ISIS fighting position and staging area near the northern border town of Ain al-Arab and a tactical unit near Aleppo, Central Command said.
Also, pro-opposition media reported the formation of the latest “unified” rebel coalition in Aleppo, bringing together several Free Syrian Army militias, along with key members of the Islamic Front, a conservative, Islamist alliance.
Observers were divided as to whether the group would gain traction on the ground, but it notably excludes the Nusra Front.
The war on Syria will be on the agenda of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Turkey Monday, although observers don’t expect progress on bridging the deep divide between Moscow and Ankara.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has strongly criticized Russia’s backing for Syrian President Bashar Assad.
In an interview with Turkey’s Anadolu news agency, Putin warned about the danger posed by jihadi groups.
“The main risk of further aggravation of the situation both in [Turkey] and in neighboring states stems from the activities of the so-called Islamic State and other radical groups that were once actively employed by some Western countries, which flirted with them and encouraged them,” Putin said.