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Turkey Sharpens Criticism of Russia's Airstrikes in Syria

  • Pamela Dockins

FILE - A civil defense member gestures toward a rebel fighter as they search for survivors at a site hit by what activists said were airstrikes carried out by the Russian Air Force in Idlib, Syria, Dec. 20, 2015.

FILE - A civil defense member gestures toward a rebel fighter as they search for survivors at a site hit by what activists said were airstrikes carried out by the Russian Air Force in Idlib, Syria, Dec. 20, 2015.

Turkey has stepped up its criticism of Russia's airstrikes in Syria in the wake of deadly strikes in the northwest city of Idlib.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Tuesday that Russia’s military campaign in Syria had largely targeted civilian sites and Syria’s moderate opposition.

During a meeting with lawmakers, the prime minister also condemned what he said were Russian air force strikes on Sunday on rebel-held Idlib.

Tensions between Russia and Turkey mounted late last month after Turkey shot down a Russian military jet that Ankara said had strayed into its territory near the Syrian border. Russia denied the charge.

Syrian opposition groups, however, also blamed Russia for the strikes in Idlib, which they said killed more than 40 people, many of them civilians.

Support for Assad

Russia launched a major military air campaign over Syria in late September as part of an effort to support President Bashar al-Assad. Russia has said it is targeting the Islamic State, but it has faced widespread criticism that its strikes have focused largely on opposition group sites.

A separate U.S.-led coalition, which includes Turkey, has been targeting Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria.

In reference to Russia’s alleged responsibility for Sunday’s deadly strikes in Idlib, a senior State Department official said it was not for the U.S. or the U.S. coalition to investigate claims of collateral damage by Russian aircraft.

“The Russians should speak to what they are doing, what they are hitting, what they are missing,” the official said.

The official added that U.S. authorities had received “credible allegations” of Russian strikes hitting facilities such as hospitals and schools and killing or wounding innocent people.

“I assume that the Russians would not intentionally target a civilian site. That is a war crime,” said Daniel Serwer, a conflict management professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. He said, however, that Russia was less concerned about collateral damage in Syria.

“I think the long and short of it is that they just don’t worry as much about hitting civilians [in Syria] as Americans do,” Serwer said.

Support group

Although Russia and the United States are involved in separate air campaigns over Syria, both countries are part of the International Syria Support Group, which has been working to foster a political transition in Syria.

Last Friday, the U.N. Security Council endorsed a plan by the group. It includes U.N.-mediated talks between the Syrian government and moderate opposition, a cease-fire and establishment of a transitional government, followed by elections within 18 months.

Russian airstrikes, such as what may have occurred in Idlib, could slow this U.N.-led process, said Mark Katz, of George Mason University’s School of Policy, Government and International Affairs in Arlington, Virginia.

“If they are behind it or if they are even perceived to be behind it, then I think that other parties are going to question the seriousness of Russia’s commitment to the U.N. process,” Katz said.

Last week, the Russian Defense Ministry addressed criticism about its air campaign in Syria.

In a statement last Wednesday, the ministry said it had constantly faced criticism from “several representatives of the so-called ‘anti-ISIS coalition.' "

It said that the more “precise” the Russian strikes, the more “clamor” had been observed in foreign mass media sources.

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