Russia admits Syria airstrikes not just targeting Islamic State

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By Geoff Earle / New York Post

WASHINGTON — Ignoring US concerns, Russia carried out a second day of airstrikes in Syria Thursday against rebel forces backed by the United States to topple Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, Sen. John McCain said.

McCain (R-Ariz.), who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, told CNN he “can absolutely confirm to you that they were strikes against our Free Syrian Army, or groups that have been armed and trained by the CIA, because we have communications with people there.” He added, “This is an Orwellian experience.”

The Kremlin admitted that its targets included non-ISIS fighters — something it had previously denied — and that its aim was to shore up the Assad regime “in its weak spots,” The Telegraph reported.

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted Russia was going after “terrorists,” including the al-Nusra Front, an al Qaeda offshoot that is battling Assad — but not the US-backed Free Syrian Army.

“If it looks like a terrorist, if it acts like a terrorist, if it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist, it’s a terrorist, right?” Lavrov told reporters at the UN.

Russia sent up more than 50 aircraft in about 30 missions, as hundreds of Iranian troops that had arrived over the last 10 days prepared for a possible ground invasion against Assad’s enemies.

“The [Russian] airstrikes will in the near future be accompanied by ground advances by the Syrian army and its allies,” a Lebanese source told Reuters.

Russian President Vladimir Putin brushed off reports of civilian deaths.

“We are ready for such information attacks,” he said from the Kremlin. “The first reports of civilian casualties came even before our jets took off.”

The US was left in the awkward position of complaining about Russia from the sidelines, even as it expressed hope the Kremlin could make a “constructive contribution” to the international coalition battling ISIS.

The White House left no doubt that it believes Russia wasn’t pursuing ISIS fighters.

“Russia is targeting areas where there are few if any ISIL forces operating,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest, using another term for ISIS.

He warned that Russia’s actions have “worsened the sectarian conflict.”

“Russian military actions against opposition groups that are genuinely fighting ISIL do come into conflict with our counter-ISIL strategy,” Earnest said.

“We have made that point clear to the Russians.”

Lavrov flippantly said the airstrikes would not cross into Iraq.

“We are not planning to expand our airstrikes to Iraq. We are polite people, as you know. We will not come unless we are invited,” he said.

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