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Is Russia Really Bombing IS Militants In Syria?

  • Joanna Paraszczuk

 A general view of deserted streets and damaged buildings in the central Syrian town of Talbisah in Homs Province, which was targeted by Russian strikes on September 30.

A general view of deserted streets and damaged buildings in the central Syrian town of Talbisah in Homs Province, which was targeted by Russian strikes on September 30.

Moscow officials announced that Russian war planes were conducting "pinpoint strikes" against Islamic State (IS) militants in Syria on September 30, and had strong words for skeptics.

But while Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters at the United Nations that it was a distortion of the facts to suggest Russia hit targets other than IS militants, the suggestion lives on among Syrian rebels, activists, and Western officials.

Russian air strikes were targeting IS "military equipment, communication centers, vehicles, arms depots, ammunition and fuel," Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in a statement posted on the Russian Defense Ministry's Facebook page.

According to Syrian state television, several strikes were carried out and hit areas in the Homs and Hama provinces. But the doubts centered on whether the areas in question were actually held by IS militants.

After a U.S. official questioned the location of IS in the targeted areas, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry addressed the issue while speaking to a United Nations Security Council meeting chaired by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Kerry said that the United States would welcome Russian participation in the effort to defeat IS militants, if Moscow's actions "reflect a genuine commitment."

But he said Washington "would have grave concerns should Russia should strike areas where ISIL and Al-Qaeda-affiliated targets are not operating."

Earlier, a French diplomatic source, speaking on condition of anonymity to Reuters, suggested that it was not IS that was being targeted, but forces opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"It is not Daesh [IS] that they are targeting, but probably opposition groups, which confirms that they are more in support of Bashar's regime than in fighting Daesh," the source was quoted as saying.

The areas in northern Homs Province reportedly targeted by the Russian air strikes are controlled by a number of Syrian rebel groups -- including the Free Syrian Army (FSA), as well as Syria's Al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Nusra Front), and hard-line Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham, according to activists, locals, and experts.

"Northern Homs countryside is home to various factions from [those under the] FSA flag to Nusra," says Thomas Pierret, a Syria expert at the University of Edinburgh. "For sure there is no IS there. And overall it is rather moderate."

According to Thomas van Linge, who maps the Syrian conflict, the northern Homs region was one of the first areas to fall into rebel hands. "It's a mix of FSA, Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, and independent groups like Faylaq al-Homs and Jaysh al-Tawhid," Van Linge tells RFE/RL.

The Local Coordination Committees (LCC), a Syrian activist group, claimed on its Facebook page that there was no IS presence in any of the areas reportedly targeted by the Russian air strikes.

"Activists said that there were dozens of civilian victims including women and children," the LCC wrote.

The LCC also said that the Russian strikes hit five towns -- Zafaraneh, Rastan, Talbisah, Makarmia, and Ghanto -- according to the BBC.

The U.S.-based think tank the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) reported that the rebel-held town of Talbisah is controlled by the Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, and a number of other local rebel groups.

"If confirmed, the air strike 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 Tartus," ISW wrote.

There was some confusion over who carried out some of the strikes in Homs. Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on September 30 that Syrian government forces had hit Zafaraneh, Rastan, and Talbisah, killing at least 27 civilians.

A U.S.-backed rebel group, Tajamu al-Ezzah, claimed on Twitter that it had been targeted in the Russian air strikes.

"It seems that the elimination of terrorism begins with the bombardment of the headquarters of Tajamu al-Ezzah and the city of Al-Latamna," the group tweeted, referring to a city in Hama Province.

Tajamu al-Ezzah has claimed to have U.S.-supplied TOW missiles, according to AP.

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena

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