Russian forces were seen actively supporting the designated terrorist group Hezbollah with operations in Syria, according to reports.
Witnesses told Kuwait’s al-Rai news that Russian spetsnaz have been conducting operations in coordination with Hezbollah in the mountain region near the coastal Syrian town of Latakia. Wednesday reports say Russian military personnel have provided close air support, artillery fire and have been seen directing various attacks.
“Special forces from the Russian army equipped with Howitzer artillery, supported by warplanes and backed by elite units from Lebanon’s Hezbollah … have been entering the fiercest of battles in the heights and towns of Latakia,” said a source to al-Rai’s chief international correspondent, Elijah J. Magner.”Through intensive use of howitzer batteries and artillery, the Russian formations are inflicting much greater losses to personnel and infantry than the losses the Russian Air Force is inflicting.”
The source claimed to have direct access to the joint operations room where Russian, Syrian, Iranian, Iraqi and Hezbollah forces are coordinating operations against the Syrian rebels, the Islamic State and Nusra Front.
Hezbollah is an Iranian-sponsored terrorist group based in Lebanon that came to U.S. attention after it bombed a Marine Corps barracks in 1983, killing 241 U.S. military personnel.
The group has been actively supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since 2013. Led by Iran, Assad and Hezbollah make up what is referred to as the “Axis of Resistance,” Iran’s predominantly Shia Muslim counter to U.S. interests in the Middle East.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has frequently claimed that Russia has no intention to engage in ground operations. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, however, was quoted in December saying “Russia, which is participating in an anti-terror operation in Syria at the request of the Syrian government, is ready to cooperate with those who are fighting this threat on the ground.”
Claims of Russian boots on the ground directly supporting Assad’s forces have been made since September when Russia began airstrikes in Syria. If the al-Rai report is accurate, this would be the first confirmed instance of Russian troops directly supporting Hezbollah.
Since Hezbollah is designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. Department of State, Russia’s direct support of the group would make it a de facto state sponsor of terrorism. Currently, Syria, Sudan and Iran are the only officially designated state sponsors of terrorism.
According to a 2008 paper by Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, active state sponsorship of terrorism can include control, coordination and contact. While Russia may not directly control Hezbollah, it is certainly coordinating with Hezbollah, if al-Rai’s report is accurate.
In terms of contact, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported Monday that Russian officers were in direct control of 36 Syrian towns and have been directing both Hezbollah forces and those loyal to al-Assad. SOHR also claimed Wednesday that Russia has been responsible for the deaths of 500 civilians since the beginning of 2016, 200 of whom were children.
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