Britain joins Syria air war; Putin vows more sanctions on Turkey
LONDON/MOSCOW: Britain joined US-led air strikes against Islamic State in Syria on Thursday, but Vladimir Putin issued bitter new denunciations of Turkey for shooting down a Russian plane, demonstrating the limits to international solidarity.
British Tornado jets took off from the Royal Air Force base at Akrotiri in Cyprus before dawn, hours after parliament in London voted 397-223 to support Prime Minister David Cameron's plan to extend air strikes from Iraq to Syria. Britain said they struck oil fields used to fund Islamic State.
"There are plenty more of these targets throughout eastern, northern Syria which we hope to be striking in the next few days and weeks," Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said. Britain would send eight more warplanes to Cyprus to join the missions.
The British contribution forms only a tiny part of U.S.-led "Operation Inherent Resolve", which has been bombing Islamic State in Iraq and Syria for more than a year with hundreds of aircraft. Previously, the small British contingent participated in strikes on Iraq but not Syria.
The strikes have so far failed to dislodge the militants from a swathe of territory where they have proclaimed a Caliphate to rule over all Muslims, although Washington and its allies say they have helped halt the fighters' advance.
Washington has announced it will deploy more special forces to conduct raids in both Iraq and Syria and help locate targets for air strikes. President Barack Obama said in an interview this did not mean a large scale ground assault like the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq "with battalions that are moving across the desert".
"But what I've been very clear about is that we are going to systematically squeeze and ultimately destroy ISIL and that requires us having a military component to that," he told CBS, using an acronym for Islamic State, also known as ISIS or Daesh.
Although the British vote adds negligible new military capability to the coalition, it took on outsized political and diplomatic significance since gunmen and bombers killed 130 people last month in Paris.
France had called for solidarity from Europe's other main military power in expanding military action, and Cameron argued that refusing would be a dereliction of responsibility.
Most of the world's powers are now flying combat missions over Iraq and Syria against Islamic State. But any consensus on how to proceed has been thwarted by opposing policies over the 4-year-old civil war in Syria, which has killed 250,000 people, driven 11 million from their homes, left swathes of territory in the hands of jihadist fighters and defied all diplomatic efforts at a solution.
Russia is bombing Syria outside the U.S.-led coalition. Moscow and Tehran support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while the United States and its European, Arab and Turkish allies want him gone and back his enemies.
"ALLAH DEPRIVES TURKS OF WISDOM"
After Islamic State claimed responsibility for both the attacks on Paris and the bombing of a Russian airliner last month, world leaders have striven to bury differences and unite the separate campaigns against the militants.
But the quest for unity was dealt a sharp blow last week when NATO-member Turkey shot down a Russian warplane.
"It appears that Allah decided to punish the ruling clique of Turkey by depriving them of wisdom and judgment," Putin said on Thursday during the Russian president's annual state of the nation speech.
Moscow has already responded with measures including bans on some Turkish fruit and vegetables, and in his icy remarks Putin made clear that would not be the end of it.
"If anyone thinks that having committed this awful war crime, the murder of our people, that they are going to get away with some measures concerning their tomatoes or some limits on construction and other sectors, they are sorely mistaken."
Turkey would have cause to regret its actions "more than once," Putin said. Minutes after the speech, his energy minister announced the suspension of a gas pipeline project.
Russian and Turkish foreign ministers met in Belgrade on Thursday in the first high-level face-to-face contact since the plane was shot down, but the two sides still appeared far apart.
Russia's Sergei Lavrov said he had heard nothing new from Mevlut Cavusoglu. The Turkish minister said it would be unrealistic to expect all problems with Russia could be solved in one meeting but it was important to keep communications channels open.
Lavrov did however welcome Britain joining air strikes in Syria, saying more universal efforts against Islamic State would be more effective.
World powers agree that air strikes alone will not defeat Islamic State, but differ on whom to support on the ground, with Moscow backing Assad's forces and the West backing his enemies.
"I think we know that without the ability to find some ground forces that are prepared to take on Daesh, this will not be won completely from the air,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said at a meeting in Belgrade of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Asked later if he meant Western ground forces, Kerry said: “(I'm) talking about Syrian and Arab, as we have been consistently.”
Moscow says its main target is Islamic State, but most of its air strikes have hit other groups opposed to Assad, many of which are supported by US allies, including Turkey.
Since the Russian plane was shot down, Moscow has infuriated Turkey by alleging Ankara has links with Islamic State. On Wednesday Russia made it personal, saying Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan's family was directly profiting from Islamic State oil smuggling.
Erdogan has refused to apologise for shooting down the Russian plane, which Turkey says had strayed into its air space and ignored repeated warnings. Moscow says it was shot down over Syria unprovoked.
Britain's debate over extending strikes to Syria showed how fraught the subject has become for Western politicians, with no easy answers to a civil war that has produced the biggest refugee crisis since World War Two and drawn thousands of disaffected youths from Western countries to the jihadi cause.
After 15 years in which hundreds of British troops died serving as the main battlefield ally of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, many in Britain are wary of more war.
The vote split Britain's opposition Labour Party, with leader Jeremy Corbyn opposed but foreign affairs spokesman Hilary Benn in favour. Around a third of Labour lawmakers defied Corbyn to vote yes.
"We must now confront this evil. It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria," Benn said in a passionate speech which drew applause from lawmakers across the House of Commons.