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Pentagon: Russians have started to focus airstrikes in Syria on Islamic State

By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 14, 2016

WASHINGTON – Russian airstrikes in Syria have focused largely on Islamic State militants since government and most rebel forces agreed to a cease-fire in the war-torn country, a Pentagon spokesman said Monday.

However, Russia’s increased bombing of the Islamic State, which has captured large swaths of land in Syria and Iraq, does not mean the Pentagon has plans to coordinate attacks with the Russians against the terrorist group, said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.

The shift in Russian targets started about Feb. 27, Davis said, when the U.S.- and Russian-brokered cease-fire took effect. The deal aimed to end a five-year civil war between the Russian-backed Syrian government and opposition rebel groups, though some fighting has continued.

The Institute for the Study of War and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights have reported cease-fire violations, primarily near Latakia in the west and Demascus in the south. The cease-fire agreement does not include attacks against the Islamic State group or al-Qaida-aligned al-Nusra Front.

Violence has dropped dramatically in March throughout the country, according to an ISW report, which estimated a 90-percent decrease in fighting in Syria.

The drop in violence has “likely allowed Russian air operations to increase support to the (Syrian) regime’s limited operations against” the Islamic State, the non-partisan research organization stated in its report. When Russia began conducting airstrikes in Syria in October 2015, it claimed it would target the Islamic State group and other “terrorists,” though it has served primarily to bolster Syrian President Bashar Assad’s fight against anti-government groups.

On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Russia will begin to remove some of its military forces from Syria, according to the Associated Press. Putin said the move should help serve as a stimulus for Syria's political talks.

But Putin also said the Russian airbase in Hemeimeem in Syria's coastal province of Latakia and a naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartous will continue to operate.

Russian airstrikes in recent weeks have hit Islamic State fighters around Palmyra, in Syria’s southern region, and in Rasm al-Aboud, in the country’s northern region, Davis said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has suggested the United States and Russia work together to defeat the Islamic State in its de facto capital Raqqa, according to Russian news agency Interfax. Davis said the Pentagon has no plans to coordinate with the Russians. The Pentagon also had no immediate response Monday to the announcement that Russia will begin removing some of its military forces from Syria.

Aside from an agreement between the United States and Russian militaries forged in October to ensure pilot safety in operations over Syria, the two nations have not coordinated any military efforts, Davis said. The United States suspended all military relations with Russia in 2014 in response to its hostilities in the Ukraine.

dickstein.corey@stripes.com
Twitter: @CDicksteinDC
 

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