At least two Syrian rebel groups backed by the United States say they were bombed in Russian air strikes this week in Moscow's bid to bolster its ally, President Bashar al-Assad, in the country's four-year-old civil war. Russia insists that the dozens of air raids targeted Islamic State (IS) militants and other "terrorists," while U.S. officials say Moscow appears to have bombed armed Syrian groups fighting both IS forces and Assad, who Washington says should not be part of a postwar Syrian government.
U.S. Senator John McCain said in an October 1 interview with CNN that he could "absolutely confirm" that the Russian bombing campaign hit recruits in the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army "that have been armed and trained by the CIA." Meanwhile, The New York Times quoted an unidentified senior U.S. official as saying this week that at least one and potentially more Syrian rebel groups covertly trained and armed by the CIA were targeted by Russian jets in the bombing campaign launched on September 30.
Here's a snapshot of two U.S.-allied Syrian armed opposition groups that say their positions were attacked by Russian jets.
Led by Hassan Haj Ali, a Syrian Army captain who defected to the opposition following the 2011 uprising against Assad, Suqour al-Jabal counts itself under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a loose alliance of rebel formations that operate without a centralized command-and-control structure. Haj Ali told Reuters that the group's camp was struck by 20 missiles launched during two Russian sorties in Idlib Province. He told Buzzfeed that his battalion received support from Washington and its allies, while Reuters quoted him as saying that his fighters had received training in Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
According to the U.S.-based Carter Center, the Suqour al-Jabal Brigade was one of 11 armed opposition groups in northwestern Syria as of December 2014 that were receiving support from the Turkey-based Military Operations Center staffed by Arab and Western intelligence personnel, including CIA officials. Western military aid is routed to Syrian rebels through the center.
While the Suqour al-Jabal group was presumably vetted by the United States to receive training and weapons, it has also battled Assad's forces alongside Al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Nusra Front), and the hard-line Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham. The group was one of several that consolidated under the banner Fatah Haleb and appears to have coordinated with these Islamist groups to launch a fierce July offensive targeting government-held areas of Aleppo.
The New York Times reported that the more moderate and Islamist groups involved in the Aleppo offensive divided into distinct coalitions due to U.S. objections to assisting rebel groups that work directly with the Al-Nusra Front, which Washington has designated a terrorist group.
It appears Moscow may have little regard for such distinctions. "If it looks like a terrorist, if it acts like a terrorist, if it walks, fights like a terrorist, it's a terrorist, right?" Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters at the United Nations on October 1.
Based in the northern Syrian town of Lataminah, Tajamu Alezzah says it is opposed to both Assad and IS (also known as ISIS, or Daesh) militants. The group's leader, Jamil al-Saleh, defected from the Syrian Army in 2012. He told Reuters that eight of his fighters were wounded in Russian air strikes in the countryside of Hama Province, where the group has a headquarters.
"The northern countryside of Hama has no presence of ISIS at all and is under the control of the Free Syrian Army," Saleh told Reuters. He said foreign powers had supplied Tajamu Alezzah with advanced antitank missiles, according to the Reuters report.
Referring to the strike on the group's base, a U.S. official told The Washington Post that there was "no reason to doubt reports from the region that coalition-backed forces from Hama were hit" in the Russian bombing.
Tajamu Alezzah fighters, which have received U.S.-provided TOW antitank missiles, have "been fighting for four years in north Hama," Saleh told The Daily Beast in an October 1 interview.
"And there is nothing called Daesh or ISIS in this area. The closest ISIS position from us is 100 kilometers," he was quoted as saying.
With reporting by Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, The Arab Weekly, AFP, dpa, The New York Times, The Daily Beast, and McClatchy