Russian strikes on Syria opposition 'helping IS' - Hammond

RAF Tornado at RAF Akrotiri Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption RAF Tornadoes have been bombing so-called Islamic State in Syria since 2 December

Russian air strikes in Syria are "giving advantage" to so-called Islamic State, the UK foreign secretary says.

Philip Hammond told MPs "the majority" of Russian strikes were targeting Syrian opposition forces rather than IS, thereby helping the extremist group "they claim to be engaged against".

The RAF has carried out more than 1,600 missions and 400 strikes on IS targets in Iraq and Syria, Mr Hammond said.

He said there had been no reports of civilian casualties due to UK action.

The UK has been conducting strikes against IS - also known as Isis, Isil or Daesh - in Iraq since August 2014.

The action, involving RAF Tornadoes and Reaper drones, was extended to Syria following a Commons vote earlier this month.

Russia began air strikes in Syria in September, saying this had been requested by President Bashar al-Assad.

The Kremlin says it is targeting "all terrorists", but Syrian activists say that at least some Russian air strikes have hit civilians and Western-backed rebels opposed to President Assad.

Syria air strikes: What you need to know

Battle for Iraq and Syria in maps

Islamic State crisis: Coalition weaponry

Updating MPs on operations, the foreign secretary said 75% of Russian strikes had been on opposition groups fighting against IS.

"In the last two weeks, the Russians have attacked opposition forces between Homs and Aleppo and in the far north of Syria and, in doing so, have allowed Daesh to seek advantage on the ground.

"With our coalition partners - including the United States - we will continue to urge the Russians at every opportunity to focus their fire solely on Daesh.

"It is unacceptable that Russian action is weakening the opposition and thus giving advantage to the very Daesh forces that they claim to be engaged against."

Mr Hammond said he would be attending a meeting on Friday of the International Syria Support Group in New York, and it was the clear intention of US Secretary of State John Kerry to try to get agreement for a ceasefire.

"Frankly, that will be highly challenging, but I commend him for his ambition," he said.

Image copyright EVN
Image caption Russia has released stills it says show its cruise missiles hitting IS targets in Raqqa

Mr Hammond said steps would also be taken in New York to further strengthen the UN sanctions regime against IS.

And he announced that the UK had created "a coalition communications cell" which was working "to combat and undermine the Daesh brand" and counteract its propaganda

He said he could not provide details about the cell for security reasons, but added: "It's already having a visible and measurable effect on Daesh's communication channels."

Diplomatic push

Replying for Labour, shadow foreign minister Diana Johnson asked about talks to help end the Syrian civil war and remove President Assad from power.

"Of course, as the Opposition has consistently argued, military action could only ever be part of the package of measures needed to defeat Daesh and end the Syrian civil war," she told the Commons.

"The UK's overriding priority has to be supporting a diplomatic agreement which unites the elements opposed to Daesh within Syria and paves the way for the departure of Assad."

Elsewhere, the Ministry of Defence has announced that the Royal Navy's Type 45 destroyer HMS Defender has joined the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle in the Indian Ocean ready to support operations against IS.

Earlier, Prime Minister David Cameron told the Commons the first 1,000 Syrian refugees to be resettled in the UK had now arrived.

More on this story