Russia says IS not the only target in Syria

Russia says IS not the only target in Syria
Russian jets carried out a second day of strikes in Syria Thursday, with activists claiming that targets included US-backed rebels as concerns grew about the conflict.
5 min read
01 October, 2015

Russia launched more air strikes in Syria on Thursday in the second day of its biggest Middle East intervention in decades, plunging the four-year-old civil war into a volatile new phase as President Vladimir Putin moved forcefully to stake out influence in the region.

The Russian air force began air strikes in Syria on Wednesday, targeting areas near the cities of Homs and Hama in the west of the country, where Assad's forces are fighting an array of insurgent groups, though not the Islamic State group (IS), which is based mostly in the north and east.

An alliance of insurgent groups including the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and powerful Ahrar al-Sham made rapid gains in Idlib province earlier this year, completely expelling the government from the area bordering Turkey.

Russian President Vladimir Putin denied reports that civilians were killed in any Russian airstrikes.

Konashenkov said Russian jets flew 20 sorties, insisting civilian areas were not targeted

"We are ready for such information attacks," he said in a live broadcast from the Kremlin. "The first reports of civilian casualties came even before our jets took off."

Russian Defense Ministry Igor Konashenkov said Russian aircraft damaged or destroyed 12 targets in Syria belonging to the Islamic State group including a command center and two ammunition depots. Officials acknowledged, however, that other unidentified groups were being targeted as well.

Konashenkov said Russian Su-25M and Su-25 jets flew 20 sorties between Wednesday and Thursday morning, and he insisted that civilian areas were not targeted.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said airstrikes in the central province of Hama on Thursday hit locations of the US-backed rebel group, Tajamu Alezzah, as well as the province of Idlib.

The British group said Tajamu Alezzah was also targeted on Wednesday.

The attacks also raised the dangerous specter of Washington and Moscow running air strikes concurrently and in the same region, but without coordination. 

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after talks at the United Nations that they agreed their countries should meet very soon on the Syrian situation. 

"We agreed on the imperative of, as soon as possible - perhaps even as soon as tomorrow, but as soon as possible - having a military-to-military de-confliction discussion," Kerry told reporters at a joint appearance with Lavrov.

Assad allies 'prepare for ground offensive'

Meanwhile, hundreds of Iranian troops have arrived in Syria in the last 10 days and will soon join government forces and their Lebanese Hizballah allies in a major ground offensive backed by Russian air strikes, two Lebanese sources told Reuters

"The (Russian) air strikes will in the near future be accompanied by ground advances by the Syrian army and its allies," said one of the sources familiar with political and military developments in the conflict. 

"It is possible that the coming land operations will be focused in the Idlib and Hama countryside," the source added. 

The two sources said the operation would be aimed at recapturing territory lost by President Bashar al-Assad's government to rebels. 

It points to an emerging military alliance between Russia and Assad's other main allies - Iran and Hizballah - focused on recapturing areas of north western Syria that were seized by insurgents in rapid advances earlier this year. 

"The vanguard of Iranian ground forces began arriving in Syria: soldiers and officers specifically to participate in this battle. They are not advisors ... we mean hundreds with equipment and weapons. They will be followed by more," the second source said. Iraqis would also take part in the operation, the source said.  

Thus far, direct Iranian military support for Assad has come mostly in the form of military advisors. Iran has also mobilized Shia militia fighters, including Iraqis and some Afghans, to fight alongside Syrian government forces. 

Lebanon's Hezballah, which is backed by Iran, has been fighting alongside the Syrian army since early in the conflict.

Civilian casualties

Russian warplanes hit the central Syrian town of Talbisseh, along with other targets [Getty]

The Syrian Observatory  reported five combatants and 27 civilians killed and many more wounded.

However, the areas struck in Homs are mostly controlled by Al-Qaeda affiliate the Nusra Front, while those hit in Latakia are held by a coalition known as the Army of Conquest, which includes Nusra.

Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said the strikes in Homs focused on command posts belonging to Nusra, as well as to its powerful Islamist ally Ahrar al-Sham and small local rebel groups.

As for Hama, he said the warplanes hit arms depots in Latamina belonging to a group called Jaish al-Izzah, as well as other targets, including those belonging to Nusra.

However, the head of Syria's main opposition group said that a Russian air strike on Wednesday killed 36 civilians as he accused Moscow of seeking to strengthen the regime.

Khaled Khoja, head of the Western-backed National Coalition which includes opposition groups and fighters, said that local activists and council members had given the names of 36 people who died in the central province of Homs, among them five children.

"All of the casualties were civilians," Khoja said in an interview in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

"So it was very obvious that the Russian intervention was to support the regime, to support more killings inside Syria, and will create a more chaotic atmosphere," he said.

He warned that the intervention would spark a "war of liberation" against Russia and Iran, the main foreign supporters of embattled President Bashar al-Assad.
Military experts point out the limits of bombing runs. The fighting in Syria is in urban centres and the rebel groups, whether extremist or moderate, carefully avoid moving in large formations. 

Russia's strikes in three Syrian provinces on Wednesday mark Moscow's first military intervention outside the former Soviet Union since the occupation of Afghanistan that ended in 1989 under an onslaught from Islamic rebels.