Russian strikes changing landscape of Syria battlefield, anti-Assad rebels say

Russia says cruise missiles launched from the Caspian Sea Wednesday were aimed at Islamic State sites, but anti-Assad rebels say they, not jihadists, are Moscow's primary target.

Ammar Abdullah/Reuters
Civilians carry belongings recovered from a site hit by what residents said were airstrikes carried out by the Russian air force in the town of Darat Izza, Syria, on Wednesday.

Russia stepped up its military strikes against anti-regime rebels in Syria Wednesday, launching 26 cruise missiles from ships in the Caspian Sea some 900 miles away as part of its bid to reshape the battlefield to favor President Bashar al-Assad.

The week-long series of Russian air and sea strikes has been criticized by the US and Western governments for targeting moderate rebels in western Syria – many of them clandestinely backed by the United States – while leaving Islamic State (IS) and other jihadist groups relatively untouched.

That pattern was made clear in Kafr Nabl, a town in northern Idlib province where a headquarters of a faction of the US-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) was struck last week. On Wednesday, five bombs were dropped around an emergency hospital that treats wounded fighters but is very far from any IS position.

“They came to save Assad … to destroy all the enemies of Assad,” says Abed al-Karim Payoush, a resident of Kafr Nabl and a media activist. He says his house shook with the force of the first blasts last Thursday, when two planes dropped 16 bombs, shocking residents and creating a wall of rising dirt and smoke.

Russia’s direct military intervention comes more than four years into this civil war, which has claimed some 250,000 lives and displaced millions of Syrians. At least in part, it reinforces the efforts of regional power Iran, which for years has supported the Assad regime financially and militarily along with the Lebanese militia Hezbollah whose fighters have been instrumental in the battle against anti-regime rebels.

While US officials have talked of coordinating efforts with Russia to defeat the IS forces that have been the West’s primary concern, Moscow’s target selection so far indicates little common purpose with Washington. And while President Obama has criticized Russia’s intervention as a mistake that reflects Moscow’s weakness, some rebels are warning that Russia’s endeavor could succeed.

“Definitely this will change the direction of the battle, and the direction of the [anti-Assad] groups who can’t defend themselves from this,” says Mr. Payoush. “The Americans decide to strike the jihadists, so Russia strikes the moderates. The only remaining force will be Assad.”

Russia has also hit IS – stating that the cruise missiles were programmed for IS targets – and claims in recent days to have destroyed ammunition depots and four IS command centers. But Moscow says its battle against “terrorists” extends beyond the jihadists and includes all rebel groups, many supported with weapons and cash by the US, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan to topple Mr. Assad.

Syrian ground offensive

The bulk of Russian strikes so far have clustered in areas where Assad recently has lost ground, threatening a critical spine of territory in western Syria stretching from the capital, Damascus, to the coastal city of Latakia – the base of Russian air operations in Syria.

“The groups that depend most on the Americans are being attacked. The Russians make a big lie when they say they attack Daesh,” says Hussein Azizi, the military commander of a large FSA faction in the divided city of Aleppo, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

“The problem is not whether [the targeted groups] are supported by the Americans or not, but if they are revolutionaries and determined to keep fighting against Assad,” says Mr. Azizi, contacted by phone. “So this is a strike against the revolution, not Daesh.”

The Russian air and missile bombardments come amid reports of Syrian government forces launching a fresh ground offensive, in concert with hundreds of Iranian military advisers and thousands of Shiite Hezbollah fighters.

'Friends of Syria ... where are you?'

Russian cargo aircraft fly non-stop to Syria, and Russian drones are now constantly above Aleppo and rebel bastions in the countryside, hunting for targets. Already Russian strikes have surprised moderate rebel factions with their precise intelligence on weapons and supply depots, and communication centers.

US officials believe that factions trained and equipped by the CIA – including those with advanced TOW anti-tank weapons – have been a top targeting priority of the Russians, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Separately, IS fighters have advanced as if ready to strike FSA positions, to take advantage of the Russian moves.

“The friends of Bashar al-Assad support him with everything: arms, cash, fighters,” says the FSA commander. “But the friends of Syria – the Americans, France, Britain, Germany – they don’t support us with anything, only talk … Where are you? Are you sleeping?”

The lack of an American military reaction to stop Russian strikes has convinced many Syrians that the US secretly gave a green light to Moscow, and that Washington now believes that Assad must be part of a political solution.

Long term, Assad 'might win'

“The Russians are intervening with all their power and weapons, and that might change the battle very much, for the benefit of Daesh and the regime,” says Younes Shasho, a member of Aleppo’s Council of Salaheddin Revolutionaries. “This is preparing for a very big battle in northern Syria.”

The Russian intervention may revitalize the beleaguered government forces and their allies, and at least stop rebel advances, if not begin to reverse them.

“Long term, they might win, it’s possible. Especially because the FSA has not been progressing and weapons are running out,” says Mr. Shasho of Assad and his determined allies. The FSA and a number of other moderate factions supported by the US and its allies have been battling jihadists, who in turn battle among themselves.

Shasho notes a lack of anti-aircraft weapons on the rebel side that have long been requested of the US. Washington has never provided shoulder-held anti-aircraft weapons, known as manpads, afraid that they might fall into the wrong hands and be used in the Middle East against commercial aircraft.

“A gun does not do anything in front of a plane, and the [pro-Assad] air forces now are now so much stronger” with the Russian help, says Shasho.

FSA prepared for weeks

FSA commanders say they have been preparing for weeks for renewed strikes against them, since the Russian military build-up became obvious. They have also been ready for new attacks by IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda offshoot in Syria.

“The destructive power of the Russian strikes is much greater than the regime’s strikes. The craters are much deeper and the range is much wider,” says Hasan Kattan, a director of the Aleppo Media Center, speaking during a visit to the Turkish city of Gaziantep, an hour’s drive from the Syrian border.

Yet he doesn’t expect the overall patchwork map of rebel factions and pro-regime forces to change too dramatically. Already rebels have survived government barrel bombs – a key reason for Syria’s high death toll – and fighting with Hezbollah, Iranian, Iraqi Shiite, and Afghan mercenaries.

“So Russian airstrikes will empower the regime, but that doesn’t change the fact that we will stay on the ground and face the situation,” says Mr. Kattan. “The real enemy to Russia and the regime is the Syrian revolution, not IS, so we are not surprised they are striking the FSA.”

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