France: 'curious' Russian strikes in Syria not against Islamic State

By John Irish and Jean-Baptiste Vey

By John Irish and Jean-Baptiste Vey UNITED NATIONS/PARIS (Reuters) - France said it was "curious" that Russian air strikes in Syria on Wednesday had not targeted Islamic State militants and a diplomatic source added that Moscow's action appeared aimed at supporting President Bashar al-Assad against other opposition groups in the country's civil war. The diplomatic source said it was in line with Russia's stance that until there was a viable alternative to Assad, Moscow would not drop its support for him in the war that began in 2011 after a government crackdown on anti-Assad protests. "Russian forces struck Syria and curiously didn't hit Islamic State," Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told lawmakers in Paris. A French diplomatic source said the strikes, which seemed to have been carried out near Homs, an area crucial to Assad's control of western Syria. "It is not Daesh (Islamic State) that they are targeting, but probably opposition groups, which confirms that they are more in support of Bashar's regime than in fighting Daesh," the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. France has in the past trained and equipped Syrian rebels who have been vetted by its intelligence services and are deemed not to be linked to Islamist groups. It has also taken part in U.S. training programs, officials have said, and supports the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition. In response to the Russian attacks and its proposals for a U.N. Security Council resolution to fight Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said he welcomed all those who wanted to fight terrorism, but that Moscow had to meet three conditions. He said Russia could not be ambiguous over who the enemy was, had to push Assad to stop indiscriminate barrel bombing of civilian populations and had to make clear that Assad would not be in government after a political transition. "The Syrian people need to be told that their executioner will not be there in the future," Fabius said. A second French diplomatic source said Russia's air strikes did not suggest Moscow was ready to do that. "We can't work (together) in these conditions," the source said. Syrian's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem accused France of "supporting terrorism." "What we have heard from the representative of France today clearly shows the true role played by France with regards to supporting terrorism," he told the U.N. Security Council. "They are inept and are not worthy of being a permanent member of the Security Council." Russia said it was ready to open "standing channels of communication" with the U.S.-led coalition bombing Islamic State militants in Syria and asked the Security Council to approve a resolution on fighting "terrorist groups." (This story has been refiled to say "executioner," instead of "executor" in ninth paragraph) (Reporting by Jean-Baptiste Vey and Dominique Vidalon in Paris; Writing by John Irish at the United Nations; Editing by Louis Charbonneau and Grant McCool)