Russia launched a major military offensive in Syria on Tuesday, hours after President-elect Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the need to join forces to combat international terrorism.
“Today we started a large-scale operation to deliver massive fire on the positions of the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra in the provinces of Idlib and Homs,” Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said at a meeting Tuesday with Putin and Russian defense industry representatives.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said airstrikes shook the provinces of Idlib and beleaguered Aleppo, which has been the focal point in a five-year war between U.S.-backed rebels and troops loyal to Russian-backed Syrian President Bashar Assad. The Syrian military said it had hit targets inside Aleppo, ending a month-long pause in strikes in the rebel-held city.
“Our houses are shaking from the pressure. Planes are soaring above us, and the bombardment is around us,” Modar Shekho, a resident of rebel-held eastern Aleppo, told Reuters.
The airstrikes drew a sharp rebuke from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who said Putin “has rejoined Bashar Assad in his barbaric war against the Syrian people.”
Trump, who expressed respect for Putin during the campaign, spoke with the Russian leader by phone Monday. The two leaders discussed a range of issues including “threats and challenges facing both nations,” the Trump transition team said in a statement.
Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday discussed Aleppo with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, emphasizing the State Department position that the solution must be political, not military. Hours later the airstrikes began.
Shoigu said the airstrikes are focused on ammunition depots, groups of terrorists and their training centers and facilities being used to manufacture weapons of mass destruction. He said Russia had sent radiation, chemical and biological protection troops to determine the toxic substances used by terrorists.
“Within the past week they used them twice – in one case, 27 people were hospitalized and three died, in the other case 30 people were hospitalized,” Shoigu said.
Some of the strikes appeared to target al-Qaeda affiliates fighting alongside the rebels, the observatory said. An airstrike also hit a hospital in the town of Awejel just outside Aleppo, injuring civilians, the British-based advocacy group said. Russian and Syria denied targeting hospitals.
Jabhat al-Nusra is an al-Qaida affiliate loosely aligned with the U.S-backed rebels. Russia has blamed rebel ties to terror groups for the dire humanitarian issues in Aleppo. The State Department has acknowledged that “marbleization” of the anti-Assad forces has been a problem.
After almost a month of relative calm, Aleppo activist Baraa al-Halaby told the Associated Press warplanes were firing missiles and helicopters were dropping barrel bombs in Syria’s largest city.
“People are scared. The bombardment is intense,” al-Halaby told AP.