Russia launches airstrikes in Syria, says targeting IS

Russia launches airstrikes in Syria, says targeting IS
Russia confirms the start of airstrikes against IS extremists in the Syrian provinces of Hama, Homs and Latakia, but doubts are being cast on Moscow's claims of hitting IS targets.
7 min read
30 September, 2015
Russia has launched airstrikes in the vicinity of Homs in Syria [Getty]

Russian military jets carried out airstrikes in Syria for the first time on Wednesday, targeting what Moscow said were Islamic State positions.

But a US official and others cast doubt on that claim, saying the Russians appeared to be attacking opposition groups fighting Syrian government forces.

Activists and a rebel commander in Syria claim the Russian airstrikes in the country have mostly hit moderate rebel positions and civilians.


The forces fighting Syria's war

Regime and its allies

The Syrian army's 300,000-strong pre-war force has been halved by deaths, defections, and frequent draft-dodging. It now controls about a third of Syrian territory.

Some 150,000 to 200,000 men belong to pro-regime militias, mostly the 90,000-strong National Defence Forces, set up in 2012.

A number of militias from Lebanon, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan have also bolstered the regime's beleaguered forces.
The most powerful of these is Lebanon's Hizballah, which experts say has sent between 5,000 and 8,000 fighters to Syria.
Russia has also dispatched at least 1,700 soldiers to Syria.

Rebels and al-Qaeda

Ahrar al-Sham is among the most powerful Islamist rebel groups in Syria. Founded in 2011 and financed by Turkey and Gulf states, according to experts, it has a key presence in Idlib, Aleppo and Damascus provinces.

Al-Nusra Front is al-Qaeda's Syria affiliate. Led by Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, it has formed alliances with other rebel groups in Idlib and Aleppo, and is also present in the south and Damascus province. It is listed by Washington as a terrorist group.

Together, al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham lead a key rebel alliance called the Army of Conquest. Since it was founded in 2015, the Army of Conquest has pushed the regime out of Idlib province.

Jaish al-Islam is the most important rebel group in Damascus province. Led by a Syrian Islamist, Zahran Alloush, the group is based in the Eastern Ghouta region, east of the capital.

The Southern Front is a coalition of rebel groups in Syria's southern province of Daraa and receives support from the West.

Islamic State group

The Islamic State group is the most well-organised, resources-rich and brutally violent non-regime force in Syria. Since 2013, it has seized half of Syria's territory, and it announced a self-styled 'caliphate' across Syria and Iraq last year.

Headed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, IS militants are fighting on several fronts: against rival rebels, al-Nusra, Kurdish groups and the regime.

It has attracted nearly 30,000 foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria since 2011, according to US intelligence estimates.

The Kurds
The Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) have controlled parts of Syria's north and northeast since the regime unilaterally withdrew its forces from the region in 2012.

The YPG has scored major victories against IS in Kobane, Tal Abyad and Hasakeh province with aerial support from the US-led international coalition fighting the extremists.

International coalition

Since 2014, the United States and Arab nations in a US-led coalition have been carrying out air strikes against IS targets in Syria. It has been unable to eliminate the group. This year, Turkey, the UK and France have joined the coalition strikes in Syria.

In a video released by the US-backed rebel group Tajamu Alezzah, jets are seen hitting a building claimed to be a location of the group in the town of Latamna in the central Hama province.

The group commander Jameel al-Saleh told a local Syrian news website that the group's location was hit by Russian jets but didn't specify the damage.

A group of local activists in the town of Talbiseh in Homs province recorded at least 16 civilians killed, including two children. A Syrian military official had earlier said the Russian jets hit this town.

President Vladimir Putin sought to portray the airstrikes as a pre-emptive attack against the Islamic militants who have taken over large parts of Syria and Iraq.

Russia estimates at least 2,400 of its own citizens are already fighting alongside extremists in Syria and Iraq.

"If they [militants] succeed in Syria, they will return to their home country, and they will come to Russia, too," Putin said in a televised speech at a government session.

The US and Russia both agree on the need to fight Islamic State, but are in dispute about what to do about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government.

At the UN General Assembly, President Barack Obama said the US and Russia could work together on a political transition, but only if Assad leaving power was the result. Putin is Assad's most powerful backer.

Conflicting reports

The Russian airstrikes targeted positions, vehicles and warehouses that Moscow believes belong to IS militants, Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov told Russian news agencies.

A senior US official, however, said the airstrikes don't appear to be targeting IS, because the militants aren't in the western part of the country, beyond Homs, where the strikes were directed.

It appears the strikes were directed against opposition groups fighting against Assad, according to the official, who wasn't authorised to discuss the Russian airstrikes publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.

Syrian state television quoted an unnamed military official as saying that Russian warplanes have targeted IS positions in central Syria, including the areas of Rastan and Talbiseh, and areas near the town of Salamiyeh in Hama province.

IS controls parts of Homs province, including the historic town of Palmyra. Homs also has positions run by al-Qaida's affiliate in Syria, known as the al-Nusra Front.

Genevieve Casagrande of the Institute of the Study of War, using an alternative acronym for Islamic State, said the airstrike on Talbisah, "did not hit ISIS militants and rather resulted in a large number of civilian casualties."

"If confirmed, the airstrike would signal Russian intent to assist in the Syrian regime's war effort at large, rather than securing the regime's coastal heartland of Latakia and Tartous," she said.

US State Department spokesman John Kirby told The Associated Press that a Russian official in Baghdad informed US Embassy personnel that Russian military aircraft would shortly begin flying anti-IS missions over Syria.

The Russian official also asked that US aircraft avoid Syrian airspace during those missions Wednesday. Kirby didn't say whether the US agreed to that request.

The US-led coalition fighting IS will continue to fly missions over Iraq and Syria, Kirby added.

The US official who spoke on condition of anonymity said there were no conflicts with the Russian strikes, and they had no impact on the coalition missions, which are primarily in the north and east.

Unanimous vote on airstrikes

Russian lawmakers voted unanimously Wednesday to allow Putin to order the airstrikes in Syria, where Russia has deployed fighter jets and other weapons in recent weeks.

The Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, discussed Putin's request for the authorisation behind closed doors, cutting off its live web broadcast to hold a debate notable for its quickness.

Putin had to request parliamentary approval for any use of Russian troops abroad, according to the constitution. The last time he did so was before Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March 2014.

Putin insisted that Russia is not going to send ground troops to Syria and that its role in Syrian army operations will be limited.

"We certainly are not going to plunge head-on into this conflict," he said.

"First, we will be supporting the Syrian army purely in its legitimate fight with terrorist groups. Second, this will be air support without any participation in the ground operations."

Putin also said he expects Assad, Russia's long-time ally, to sit down and talk with the Syrian opposition about a political settlement, but added he was referring to what he described as a "healthy" opposition group.

Russia's first airstrike on Syria came after Putin's meeting Monday with Obama on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York, where the two discussed Russia's military buildup in Syria.

Putin and other officials have said Russia was providing weapons and training to Assad's army to help it combat IS.

Russian navy transport vessels have been shuttling back and forth for weeks to ferry troops, weapons and supplies to an air base near the Syrian coastal city of Latakia.

IHS Jane's, a leading defence research group, said last week that satellite images of the base showed 28 jets, including Su-30 multirole fighters, Su-25 ground attack jets, Su-24 bombers and possibly Ka-52 helicopter gunships.

Sergei Ivanov, chief of Putin's administration, said in televised remarks after the parliamentary vote that Moscow was responding to a request from Assad asking for help.

He said the biggest difference between Russian airstrikes and those being conducted by the US and other countries is that "they do not comply with international law, but we do."

Moscow has always been a top ally of Assad. The war in Syria against his regime, which began in 2011, has left at least 250,000 dead and forced millions to flee the country. It is also the driving force behind the record-breaking number of asylum-seekers fleeing to Europe this year.

Worried by the threat of Russian and US jets clashing inadvertently over Syrian skies, Washington agreed to talk to Moscow on how to "deconflict" their military actions.