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Syrian Foreign Minister: We Sure Are Glad Russia Is Bombing Our Country

As Western powers scramble to formulate a response to Russia's escalating air campaign in Syria, Damascus’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, took to the United Nations Friday to defend Moscow’s intervention as a necessary bulwark against the spread of the Islamic State in Syria and beyond.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 01:  Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem addresses the United Nations General Assembly on October 1, 2012 in New York City. Moallem defended the Syrian government?s role in the 18-month civil war which has left an estimated 28,000 dead.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 01: Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem addresses the United Nations General Assembly on October 1, 2012 in New York City. Moallem defended the Syrian government?s role in the 18-month civil war which has left an estimated 28,000 dead. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As Western powers scramble to formulate a response to Russia’s escalating air campaign in Syria, Damascus’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, took to the United Nations Friday to defend Moscow’s intervention as a necessary bulwark against the spread of the Islamic State in Syria and beyond.

The speech, which also included an announcement that Syria would participate in U.N.-led working groups designed to set the stage for a third round of Syrian peace talks in Geneva, came as Washington and its allies accused Russia of bombing U.S.-backed opponents of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad rather than targets belonging to ISIS. Western powers and observers on the ground also accuse Russia of killing numerous civilians in the strikes.

The origins of the Islamic State are at the center of a broader divide between the Obama administration and the governments of Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin. U.S. officials have long said Assad’s decision to launch a brutal crackdown on what started out as a peaceful opposition movement four years ago created enough lawlessness and popular anger that the Islamic State found fertile soil in Syria. They say he is the biggest single cause of the extremism wracking the regime that has left hundreds of thousands dead and triggered the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

Moallem maintained that the military and financial support for opposition groups in Syria by Gulf and Western countries has strengthened anti-government terrorists. As he refused to differentiate between the of opposition groups and militias within Syria, Moallem questioned how Western governments could justify military support for any group other than the Syrian government.

“How can your countries accept the ideas of sexual jihad slaughtering, hand-cutting, burning and systematic destruction of historical monuments and culture?” he said. “Syria will continue to fight terrorism in word and in deed and the Arab Syrian army is capable of cleansing the country of those terrorists.”

Moallem also went out of his way to praise the Russian strikes, which have included 18 attacks on 12 facilities in the last 24 hours.

“Russian air strikes in Syria, which came upon a request from the Syrian government and in coordination with the government, is an effective participation in the support for the Syrian efforts in combating terrorism,” he said.

Washington’s efforts to train and equip moderate members of the Syrian opposition have largely failed, either resulting in U.S.-approved rebels getting kidnapped, joining more radical organizations, surrendering their weapons to al Qaeda-affiliated groups or getting killed on the battlefield among other outcomes.

Russia began launching airstrikes in Syria on Wednesday, a development that surprised — and then angered — U.S. officials, who say Russia is targeting American-backed rebels and not the Islamic State.

In a press conference on Friday, President Barack Obama said that when he met with Putin on the sidelines of the U.N. summit this week, it became clear that the two fundamentally disagreed about the makeup of the Syrian opposition.  “What was very clear, and regardless of what Mr. Putin said, was that he doesn’t distinguish between ISIL and a moderate Sunni opposition that wants to see Mr. Assad go,” Obama said. “From their perspective, they’re all terrorists, and that’s a recipe for disaster. And it’s one that I reject.”

On Friday, the governments of France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Britain, and the U.S. issued a joint statement expressing “deep concern with regard to the Russian military build-up in Syria and especially the attacks by the Russian Air Force on Hama, Homs and Idlib, which led to civilian casualties and did not target [ISIL].”

The statement called on Moscow to “immediately cease” attacks on the Syrian opposition and civilians “and to focus its efforts on fighting ISIL.”

Meanwhile, Syrian rebel leaders who have had ties with the U.S., condemned Russia’s military involvement in the nearly five-year conflict. In a two-minute video released on Thursday and provided by SITE, former Free Syrian Army commander Riad al-Assad accused Russia of trying to “keep the tyrant [Assad], the killer of children and old people and women … and his regime in control of Syria.”

Russia’s expanded military presence in Syria adds a new and uncertain variable to the conflict. On Thursday, reporters repeatedly asked Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about which groups in Syria Russia aimed to eliminate, but Lavrov refused to offer specifics.

“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?” he said.

In his speech on Friday, Moallem said Syria would participate in working groups proposed by the U.N.’s Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, but he stressed that the working groups were non-binding and depicted them as “brainstorming” sessions in advance of distant peace talks to be scheduled in the future.

The closing of the speech resulted in light applause.

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