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White House: Russia Endangering Itself With Syrian Airstrikes

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This image, taken Sept. 30, 2015, and posted on the Twitter account of Syria Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets - a volunteer search and rescue group - shows the aftermath of an airstrike in Talbiseh, Syria.

This image, taken Sept. 30, 2015, and posted on the Twitter account of Syria Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets - a volunteer search and rescue group - shows the aftermath of an airstrike in Talbiseh, Syria.

The White House said Thursday that Russia had “further isolated itself” by carrying out airstrikes in Syria and was putting itself in jeopardy.

“The fact is that carrying out indiscriminate military operations against the Syrian opposition is dangerous for Russia,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.

He said Russian interference would prolong the sectarian conflict inside Syria. “It also risks Russia being drawn even more deeply into that conflict,” he said, pointing out that Russia already had acknowledged there could be no military solution in Syria.

Earnest also said that what he called Russia’s “indiscriminate” strikes would drive moderate elements of the Syrian opposition toward extremism, and ultimately exacerbate extremism inside Russia.

Russia's actions in Syria have not led to a "broad re-evaluation" of the U.S. strategy there, Earnest said.

Shift by U.S.?

But Syrian expert Joshua Landis told VOA's Persian service that the Obama administration might actually be climbing down from its strict rejection of working with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russia in trying to root out Islamic State.

"It’s not very clear how far it can go in this process," said Landis, an associate professor in the School of International and Area Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He said Washington has been trying to balance two separate interests. "On one hand, it insists on the values of human rights, democracy and getting rid of dictators ... but on the other hand there is this interest of rooting out ISIS from Syria," and for that the U.S. may need to work with the Russians and Assad.

The Pentagon said the U.S. and Russian militaries would hold another teleconference in the coming days on ways they can avoid firing on each other, as both wage air campaigns in Syria.

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said an hourlong conversation between the two sides Thursday was cordial. He said the Russian side made clear that strikes in Syria would continue, while the American representative "noted U.S. concerns that areas targeted so far are not ISIL [Islamic State] strongholds."

The officials' conversation came amid signs that Russia may be preparing to expand its air operations to neighboring Iraq.

A senior Russian diplomat said his country would consider airstrikes in Iraq if Baghdad asked, though Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov indicated otherwise.

"We are not planning to expand our airstrikes to Iraq," Lavrov said at a Thursday news conference at the United Nations in New York. "We were not invited. We were not asked. We are polite people; we don’t come unless invited."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov addresses the media during the United Nations General Assembly at the United Nations in Manhattan, New York, Oct. 1, 2015.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov addresses the media during the United Nations General Assembly at the United Nations in Manhattan, New York, Oct. 1, 2015.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said he would welcome Russian aid in defeating the Islamic State. He told France 24 television earlier in the day that if Russia offered air support, "we will consider it and I would welcome it," Reuters reported.

In its fight with the Islamic State, Iraq's government primarily has been supported by the U.S.-led coalition. To date, it has provided $2.3 billion in equipment and air support. Its current ground force of 5,451 includes 3,359 Americans, a Pentagon spokesman said Thursday.

Iranian ground troops

Earnest said the White House could not confirm reports that Iranian troops were on the ground in Syria and preparing for a ground offensive, but he said that if the reports were true, they would be an “apt and powerful” illustration of how Russia’s military operations have worsened the conflict.

Hundreds of Iranian troops newly arrived in Syria will join in a major ground operation with Assad's government forces and Lebanese Hezbollah allies, two Lebanese sources told Reuters.

To date, Iran primarily has provided military advisers in the conflict.

At a Pentagon news conference Thursday, spokesman Colonel Steve Warren did not confirm reports that Iranian troops had crossed into Syria. But, he said, "it’s no surprise to us that the Iranians are present." Iran's Foreign Ministry on Thursday endorsed Russia's airstrikes.

Broader target list

Russian jets staged a second day of airstrikes in Syria on Thursday, targeting not only Islamic State extremists but also fighters backed by the United States, some observers charged.

Russian aircraft hit a dozen IS targets, including a command center and two ammunition depots, Defense Minister Igor Konashenkov said in a televised report.

The Kremlin acknowledged it also was taking aim at "a list" of groups beyond the extremist group.

"These organizations are well-known and the targets are chosen in coordination with the armed forces of Syria," spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Thursday.

This image taken in Sept. 30, 2015 posted on the Twitter account of Syria Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, a volunteer search and rescue group, shows the aftermath of an airstrike in Talbiseh, Syria.

This image taken in Sept. 30, 2015 posted on the Twitter account of Syria Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, a volunteer search and rescue group, shows the aftermath of an airstrike in Talbiseh, Syria.

His words contradicted a statement Wednesday by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff that raids were solely meant to aid Syria’s government in fighting the Islamic State group.

Airstrikes on Thursday pounded areas where the U.S.-backed rebel group Tajamu Alezzah is operating, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

U.S. Senator John McCain, who heads the Senate's Armed Services Committee, said he had proof that Russian warplanes had attacked U.S.-trained fighters.

"Their initial strikes were against the individuals and the groups that have been funded and trained by our CIA," McCain said Thursday on CNN.

He accused Moscow of trying to prop up its ally Assad, whom the United States and other Western countries want out of office.

Dangerous new dimension

With American and allied airstrikes daily, and now Russian warplanes in the Syrian airspace, the war is taking on a dangerous new dimension.

Alexander Orlov, the Russian ambassador to France, said Russian officials warned the Americans “via confidential channels” of where they planned to strike. He also noted a coordination center was being set up in Baghdad that would include Syrians, Iraqis, Iranians and Russians — and any other country that wants to participate.

Smoke billows from buildings in the central Syrian town of Talbisseh in Homs province. Russian warplanes carried out airstrikes in three Syrian provinces, including Homs, along with regime aircraft, according to a Syrian security source, Sept. 30, 2015.

Smoke billows from buildings in the central Syrian town of Talbisseh in Homs province. Russian warplanes carried out airstrikes in three Syrian provinces, including Homs, along with regime aircraft, according to a Syrian security source, Sept. 30, 2015.

Khaled Khoja, head of the Syrian National Council opposition group, said at the U.N. that Russian airstrikes in four areas, including Talbiseh, killed 36 civilians, with five children among the dead.

The claim could not be independently verified. At a Thursday news conference, a Pentagon spokesman said he had no information.

Putin denied reports of any civilian deaths in Russian airstrikes.

“We are ready for such information attacks. The first reports of civilian casualties came even before our jets took off,'' he said Thursday in a live broadcast from the Kremlin, according to the AP.

Russia began carrying out airstrikes in Syria on Wednesday, just hours after lawmakers gave Putin the permission to deploy Russian military forces there.

Russia’s decision to begin airstrikes in Syria in support of Assad’s regime "is tantamount to pouring gasoline on the fire" of that country’s four-year civil war, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said.

The conflict, rooted in a civilian uprising against Assad in March 2011, has claimed more than 250,000 lives and forced millions to flee — mostly elsewhere in the Middle East or to Europe.

Pamela Dockins at the State Department, Carla Babb at the Pentagon and Jeff Seldin contributed to this report. Some material for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.

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