BEIRUT/ANKARA – At least 45 people have been killed in a wave of Russian airstrikes in the north of the regime stronghold of Latakia province, a monitoring group said on Tuesday.
“At least 45 people were killed in Russian airstrikes on the Jabal al-Akrad region yesterday afternoon,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. “Among them were civilians but we do not have a precise number,” he added.
He said a rebel commander and the families of rebel fighters were among the dead, adding that dozens of people were wounded and the toll was expected to rise because of the number of those with serious wounds.
Opposition forces including moderate and Islamist fighters have positions in the Jabal al-Akrad region, which is in the far north of coastal Latakia. The province is a regime stronghold and home to the ancestral village of President Bashar al-Assad. It has been a key target of Russian airstrikes since Moscow began an air campaign in Syria on September 30.
Russia says its strikes target the Islamic State group and other “terrorists”, but rebels and their backers say Moscow has focused more on moderate and Islamist opposition forces than jihadists.
Russian airstrikes in Syria have killed 370 people since they began on September 30, around a third of them civilians, a monitoring group said Tuesday.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 243 rebel fighters had been killed, among them 52 from the Islamic State group, along with 127 civilians. Among the civilians were 36 children and 34 women, according to Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that Moscow’s intervention in Syria demonstrates it can counter any threats, as the Kremlin flexes its muscles on the world stage.
Meanwhile, Turkey is ready to accept a political transition in Syria in which President Bashar al-Assad stays in symbolic power for six months before leaving office, and is discussing the plan with Western allies, two senior government officials said on Tuesday.
NATO member Turkey has long been one of Assad’s fiercest critics, insisting that no lasting peace can be achieved in Syria without his removal from power.
“Work on a plan for Assad’s departure is under way … (Assad) can stay for six months and we accept that because there will be a guarantee of his departure,” one of the officials told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“We have moved forward on the issue to a certain degree with the United States and our other allies. There is not an exact consensus on when the six-month period would begin, but we think it won’t be too long.”
The United States will put the proposal to Russia, one of the Turkish officials said, but it was not clear whether Moscow would entertain the idea. Three weeks ago, Russia launched airstrikes in support of Assad against insurgents fighting him.
European nations have struggled to find a common position on the role Assad should play in the solution of the Syrian crisis. France is keen to see Assad go as soon as possible, while Germany would prefer to have him involved in the transitional phase before he quits.
Britain wants Assad to leave power “at some point” as part of any deal by world powers to end the four-year-old conflict, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said on Tuesday.
Assad said in an interview with Iranian television aired on Oct. 4 that it was not up to any foreign official to decide Syria’s future, including any transitional period mooted.
“The future political system, and which individuals govern Syria, this is a decision for the Syrian people. That’s why these statements don’t concern us,” he said.