AMMAN: Russia began its second day of airstrikes on Thursday, but instead of hitting the Islamic State, a rebel commander along with activists and fighters on the ground say Moscow is in fact targeting FSA affiliates, some of which are direct recipients of American TOW missiles and other military aid.
Russia’s intervention in Syria “is intended to exterminate the Free Syrian Army—no, the Syrian people,” Captain Jameel a-Salih of the FSA-affiliated Tajammua al-Izza brigade in north Hama told Syria Direct Thursday, expressing a sentiment shared by pro-opposition activists and fighters present in the Syrian north.
Russian warplanes struck the Tajammua al-Izza brigade’s base [مقر] twice on Wednesday and three times on Thursday, the head of the brigade’s media office told Syria Direct.
The Tajammua brigade is one of the recipients of American training and military aid, says an Idlib-based journalist. “To be frank, America trains them and arms them with TOW missiles,” Ibrahim a-Shamali, with the pro-opposition Umayya Media Center, told Syria Direct Thursday.
While it is still not clear how many strikes Russia has carried out, the total appears to stand at no less than two dozen in the past 48 hours. Most of Wednesday and Thursday's air raids took aim at rebel-held areas in rural north Hama, southern Idlib and the northern Homs countryside, where IS has little to no presence. Other strikes have targeted Latakia province, where the Islamic State has no visible presence. But the Russians do, including their own airbase in the southern Latakia countryside.
Most of the Russian strikes have targeted locations close to the “critical areas” that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said he wants to preserve, in a speech given in late July: The Syrian coast, Damascus, Homs and Hama, Ahrar a-Sham spokesman Ali al-Hafawi told Syria Direct on Thursday.
In northern Homs, three of Russia's targets Wednesday included the rebel-held cities of Rastan, Talbisa and a-Zafarana, where three FSA-affiliated brigades dominate: Harakat Tahrir Homs, Jaish a-Tawheed and Kataib Atbaa a-Rusul.
“Keep in mind, IS has no presence at all in the northern Homs countryside,” Mohammed a-Daheek, a citizen journalist from Talbisa, told Syria Direct Thursday.
On Wednesday, Moscow denied targeting FSA-affiliated, US-backed rebels since its bombing campaign began, saying it was conducting a campaign against the Islamic State.
“Today [Wednesday] the Russian aviation...performed high accuracy strikes against international terrorist organization ISIS,” Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a Wednesday statement in English on its website. “Total rubbish,” is how the head of Russia's Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov, described accusations that Russia had targeted non-IS rebels.
But the first image of the video accompanying the Ministry of Defense's statement displays Russian warplanes in fact blowing up the FSA-affiliated Tajammua al-Izza's base in al-Latamna in north Hama, the brigade’s media office told Syria Direct Thursday.
“Russia published videos showing their bombing operations,” said the head of the media office, who asked to remain anonymous. “The first location that they filmed is one of our bases.”
Syria Direct’s open-source partner OpenSyria has matched the location of a video filmed by Tajammua al-Izza on Wednesday to that of the Russian Ministry of Defense.
“Russia seems to be targeting the armed opposition,” Joanna Paraszczuk, a journalist with Radio Free Europe who tracks Russian-speaking jihadi groups in Syria, told Syria Direct on Thursday, “although they are claiming officially that they have struck Islamic State targets.”
Moscow “has conflated the armed opposition with IS for many months, though, as part of its strategy to de-legitimize the armed opposition, so it is not surprising that it now insists that the targets Russia is hitting is the Islamic State,” said Paraszczuk, a Russian speaker.
Syrian v. Russian planes
How do we know that the planes are in fact Russian and not Syrian? Syrian rebel fighters have seen formations of several planes conducting the airstrikes across Syria's north over the past two days. The Syrian regime carries out air raids using one helicopter or warplane at a time, which return to bomb again if more than one strike is required. In Tajammua al-Izza's video, a formation of four planes is clearly visible.
The multiple-plane formation “is a unique phenomenon, a new one—we've only seen it after the Russians got involved,” the Tajammua spokesman told Syria Direct Thursday, an account corroborated the same day by a rebel fighter from a different FSA-affiliated brigade in Latakia province.
The missiles used in Wednesday and Thursday's airstrikes are more destructive than regime airstrikes, Rahhal Rahhal, a Latakia-based fighter with the FSA affiliate Kataib al-Hijra Ila Alla told Syria Direct Thursday. Rahhal's brother is the head of Kataib al-Hijra Ila Allah, which contributed to the ouster of the Islamic State from Latakia province in 2013.
In Latakia province, Russian warplanes carried out three airstrikes Thursday, including in Jabal al-Akrad and Jabal al-Turkman, where Ahrar a-Sham and FSA-affiliated brigades hold sway, Ali al-Hafawi, spokesman for Ahrar a-Sham on the coast, told Syria Direct Thursday.
“The target in Latakia is the armed opposition. Just the armed opposition. Not the Islamic State,” said Rahhal Rahhal.
Also on Thursday, activists in north Hama’s al-Latamna documented a missile that had entered the ground without exploding, Idlib-based correspondent Ibrahim a-Shamali told Syria Direct. “This is something new—the Syrian regime's missiles that don't explode usually stay on the surface of the ground.”
In northern Hama and southern Idlib, the brigades targeted by Russian warplanes Wednesday and Thursday “belong to the MOC [Military Operations Command]—Suqur al-Ghab, Suqur al-Jabal, Tajammua al-Izza,” said a-Shamli. The semi-secretive Military Operations Command in Turkey is one of the two locations at which the United States arms and funds vetted rebel groups in Syria.
‘Do they want us to become terrorists?’
The airstrikes are only hardening the resolve of civilians in north Homs against the regime, a civilian in Rastan told Syria Direct Thursday.
“By God, we no longer know where to go. We're asking ourselves where to go,” said Mohannad al-Qasem, from Rastan, one of the towns that was bombed by Russian planes Wednesday.
“The entire international community has let us down...This is what I want to understand: Do they want us to become terrorists, to become IS fighters?!”
Mustafa Abu Arab, a journalist near al-Latamna, answered al-Qasem’s question with one of his own.
“Does Russia, through its strikes, want to force people to join up with the Islamic State, considering that in any case they're going to be killed—whether civilian, armed opposition or IS?”