Reports Wednesday suggest Russia’s first-ever Syrian airstrikes were directed against civilians and Western-backed rebels, not Islamic State.
President Vladimir Putin’s main message at the U.N. General Assembly Monday was the formation of a “truly international” coalition to fight the jihadi group. But there is no evidence that the first Russian foray into the Syrian civil war has done anything besides furthering the government of Bashar Assad, whose strategy has entailed deliberately avoiding battle with Islamic State. (RELATED: Whose Planes Is Russia Planning To Shoot Down In Syria?)
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research outfit, reported that the airstrikes hit Talbisah, a town divided between local rebel groups and various Islamist factions including the local al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. ISW added that “the airstrike did not hit ISIS militants and rather resulted in the a large number of civilian casualties.”
At the same time, photographs and videos quickly emerged online of civilians bombed by the Russian airstrikes on Talbisah. One of the sources for the fresh videos was a YouTube user whose account has existed for over four years. Eliot Higgins, a British open-source analyst, pointed out the legitimacy of the account in contradiction to Russian news reports alleging that the evidence is falsified.
Opposition groups also claimed that Russian airstrikes bombed them in the town of Al-Lataminah, some 30 miles away. All the territory that reported airstrikes by Russian equipment is in rebel-held pockets surrounded by areas under regime control.
Russia’s initial military actions in Syria confirm The New York Times’ report Tuesday, which predicted that the Russian presence in the country is “unlikely to be a major factor in the campaign to defeat the Islamic State.” (RELATED: Selfies And Spies Prove That Russian Troops Are Fighting In Syria)
Wednesday’s airstrikes took place hours after a new parliamentary authorization, in which Russian lawmakers unanimously approved the use of military force in Syria.
The military buildup that Russia undertook in Syria over the course of September, by contrast, was denied to be anything more than “training and logistical support.”
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