Russia launches first Syria strikes from submarine ahead of talks
MOSCOW - Agence France-Presse
A video grab made early on December 9, 2015, shows an image taken from a footage made available on the Russian Defence Ministry's official Facebook page on December 8, 2015, purporting to show the Rostov-on-Don submarine launching Calibre cruise missiles in the Mediterranean Sea during a strike against Islamic State (IS) group's positions in Syria. AFP PHOTO / RUSSIAN DEFENCE MINISTRYRussia flexed its military muscles on Dec. 8 as it launched strikes in Syria for the first time from a submarine stationed in the Mediterranean, ratcheting up its bombing campaign in the war-torn country.
The strikes came with Syria's splintered opposition due to begin Saudi-organised talks in Riyadh on Dec. 9 for difficult discussions on forming a united front in potential talks with President Bashar al-Assad to end the country's years-long conflict.
Moscow's latest strikes hit "300 targets of different kinds" in the past three days and helped Syrian special forces recover the black box of the Russian warplane downed by Turkey last month, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said.
"We used Calibre cruise missiles from the (Kilo-class) Rostov-on-Don submarine from the Mediterranean Sea," Shoigu told President Vladimir Putin during an encounter broadcast on state television.
"As a result of the successful launches by the aviation and submarine fleet, all targets were destroyed," Shoigu said, adding that oil infrastructure, ammunition depots and a mine-making factory had been hit in the strikes.
Meanwhile, Russia warned in advance that its military would launch strikes on Dec. 8 on Syria for the first time from a submarine stationed in the Mediterranean, the United States said.
Speaking in Washington, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said: "We were given advanced notice that they would be carrying out strikes."
He added: "We appreciate that," particularly because the Kremlin was not required to do so under a memorandum of understanding signed by Russia and the U.S. to avoid the two sides clashing over Syria.
The advanced notice on the cruise missiles was "an additional measure of safety," said Cook.
Russia launched a bombing campaign in Syria on September 30, saying it needed to target Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) jihadists -- but the West has accused Moscow of seeking to prop up Assad's regime and hitting moderate rebels.
Moscow stepped up strikes against ISIL after the group claimed responsibility for the bombing of a Russian passenger plane over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula in October, killing all 224 people on board.
Russia is once again flaunting its military might after having previously fired missiles from warships in the Caspian Sea.
The Russian defence ministry said it had upped the intensity of its strikes in Syria since Dec. 5 , dropping 1,920 bombs over the past four days.
Putin said on Dec. 8 that the Calibre missiles launched from the submarine could be equipped with nuclear warheads -- but said he hoped they would "never be needed in the fight against terrorism".
The latest strikes came ahead of talks in Riyadh which mark the first time representatives of some of Syria's various political and armed opposition factions will come together since the outbreak of the country's conflict in March 2011.
The goal is to form a unified bloc for talks with Assad that world powers hope can be held before January 1.
Washington voiced hope ahead of the Saudi-organised talks, with State Department spokesman John Kirby telling reporters the conference "can be an important step in creating momentum for negotiations, again, under UN auspices, of a political transition".
But divisions have already emerged over the reported participation of some groups, while armed entities described as "terrorist" organisations, such as Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Al-Nusra Front and ISIL, were not invited.
Previous attempts by regional and other international powers have failed to unite the diverse opposition groups, whose differences have long reflected the struggle for influence among the countries supporting them.
But there has been a growing diplomatic push for a resolution to the conflict, which has killed more than 250,000 people and forced millions from their homes.
Shoigu, meanwhile, also said Russia had "actively worked" on the region where Turkey shot down a Russian war jet on the Syrian border on November 24, allowing Syrian special forces to recover the plane's black box.
Putin ordered that the black box be analysed "together with foreign experts".
Moscow and Ankara are locked in a bitter feud over the November 24 downing of the jet on Turkey's border with Syria, sparking fury and economic sanctions from the Kremlin.
Putin said an analysis of the black box would help determine the plane's flight path and position, which Ankara and Moscow have furiously disagreed over.
But he warned that no black box findings could assuage Moscow's anger over the incident, which left one of its pilots dead. Another Russian serviceman was killed in the rescue operation.
"Whatever we learn (from the black box) won't change our attitude to what the Turkish authorities did," the Russian strongman said.
"We used to treat Turkey not only as our friend but also as an ally in the fight against terrorism, and nobody expected this low, treacherous stab in the back."