Syrian officials reject U.S. criticism of reported civilian casualties

Criticized by 'horrified' U.S. officials, Syria denies killing civilians in air raids on Islamic State

The Syrian government lashed back Friday at an Obama administration statement that the U.S. was “horrified” at accounts of large-scale civilian casualties during reported Syrian air raids this week on territory controlled by the radical Islamic State group.

In comments on the official Syrian news site, Information Minister Omran Zoubi said Syrian forces do not target civilians and rejected State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki's statement assailing Damascus’ “callous disregard for human life.”

“The Syrian state is more committed to its people than those who send weapons, money and train terrorists,” said Zoubi.

Syrian officials have long accused the United States and allied nations, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, of supporting terrorists by providing cash, arms and other support to factions fighting inside Syria to topple President Bashar Assad. Washington and allies backing Assad’s ouster say they support only moderate Syrian rebels.

Syrian opposition advocates allege that scores of civilians died this week during an aerial onslaught against the north-central Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State group. Syria has not publicly acknowledged the strikes.

The polemical exchange between Damascus and Washington is the latest manifestation of a raging propaganda war that has run parallel to the bloody Syrian conflict, now in its fourth year. While their forces have made steady gains on the battlefield, Syrian authorities have generally been on the losing end of the press and social media campaign, especially in the West and Arab world.

Nonetheless, the Syrian government and U.S.-led air forces are effectively on the same side in the campaign against Islamic State, the Al Qaeda breakaway faction that has seized vast stretches of territory in Syria and neighboring Iraq. The group, which arose from the mayhem of the Syrian conflict, also has executed scores of Syrian soldiers and civilians and a number of Westerners, including two U.S. journalists and an American aid worker.

In September, President Obama announced a U.S. air campaign against Islamic State in Syria and vowed to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the group. Syrian opposition activists have called on Washington to turn its air power on Assad’s government, but the Obama administration has said Islamic State remains its priority.

U.S. and Syrian warplanes have been pummeling Islamic State positions in Syria, which have also been attacked by Syrian troops. Obama has said Washington has no intention of dispatching U.S. ground troops to Syria.

On Friday, U.S. Central Command said that the American-led coalition had conducted two airstrikes in Syria and 13 in Iraq between Wednesday and Friday, all targeting Islamic State positions.

Pentagon officials have said they are investigating reports of civilian casualties in Syria from U.S. airstrikes, but have not publicly acknowledged that any civilians have been killed in the American campaign. The Syrian government also has not acknowledged civilian deaths in its air offensive.

For months, many activists with U.S.-backed Syrian opposition groups assailed Damascus for not targeting Islamic State positions in northern and eastern Syria. But the recent reported uptick in Syrian airstrikes against Islamic State in Raqqa and elsewhere has brought a new raft of criticism that the bombardment has indiscriminately targeted civilians.

Follow @mcdneville on Twitter for developments in the Syrian conflict

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