Russia’s decision to carry out air strikes in Syria has caused concern among opponents of president Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Moscow claims the scores of sorties carried out by its war planes have targeted Islamic State (IS) targets, including weapons and ammunition depots, communications and infrastructure.

However, many are concerned that Russia’s motives for the intervention — its biggest in the region in decades — extend beyond the fight against IS.

France and the United States have expressed their doubts, while Federal Justice Minister Michael Keenan labelled Russia “not trustworthy” over its involvement in the Syrian conflict.

What were the targets?

On the first day of the strikes, Russian planes struck the rebel-held towns of Rastan and Talbisah, north of Homs City on Wednesday, as well as the towns of Al Latamneh and Kafr Zeita in Homs province, according to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a US think-tank based in Washington.

According to Syria’s state-run SANA news agency, the first day’s strikes targeted Rastan, Talbisah, Zaafran, Tolol al-Humr, Aydon, Deir Fol and the area surrounding Salmia in the central region in Syria.

SANA claimed “direct hits … and heavy losses” for Islamic State militants.

The ISW said Talbisah was home to Jabhat al-Nusra — a Syrian Al Qaeda affiliate that has been fighting against both Islamic State and the Assad regime — as well as the hardline Islamist Ahrar al-Sham and a number of other local rebel groups.

 

 

The ISW said local Syrian sources claimed the first strikes “exclusively targeted” rebel positions, including the headquarters of the Al Izzah Gathering in Latamneh.

In a blog post on September 30 the ISW said: “Notably, the nearest positions held by ISIS (IS) are over 55 kilometres from the areas targeted by the Russian air strikes. No Russian airstrikes have yet been reported against ISIS’s positions in Syria.”

In Russia’s second round of strikes on October 1, Russian jets struck targets near the cities of Homs, Idlib, Aleppo and Raqqa — Islamic State’s de facto capital.

Russia’s defence ministry said the attacks targeted Islamic State positions.

However, Hassan Haj Ali, head of the Liwa Suqour al-Jabal rebel group that is part of the Free Syrian Army,told Reuters news agency that one of the targets was his group’s base in Idlib province, struck by about 20 missiles in two separate raids.

Liwa Suqour al-Jabal fighters were trained by the CIA in Qatar and Saudi Arabia as part of a US program aimed at supporting groups opposed to both Islamic State and the Assad regime.

To provide a comparison, the US has focused its strikes on areas in Syria’s east — such as Raqqa, Dayr Az Zawr and Palmyra — where Islamic State militants are known to operate.

Who controls what?

Besides Raqqa, which is in Syria’s north-east, Islamic State also controls the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, east of Homs. Militants have since destroyed a number of antiquities in the city, including the historic Temple of Bel.

In recent months, the group has made advances in the country’s central corridor.

Mr Assad’s regime controls areas in the country’s west, including Damascus, Homs, Tartous and Latakia.

Other rebel groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, operate in pockets in Syria’s north-west, south, and around Homs. Rebels are largely in control of Idlib, a city which was the focus of protests and fighting in the early years of the civil war.

Russia has a naval base at Tartous. The AFP news agency reported that Russia was also using the Bassel al-Assad International Airport, south of Latakia.

The ISW says Russia also has a presence at Latakia’s port, in Homs, at Damascus International Airport, and at Slinfah, south of Idlib.

What do Russia and the US want to happen in Syria?

Russia has continually opposed any international intervention in Syria, citing concerns that it could be used to overthrow Mr Assad’s regime. Russia and China have together vetoed four resolutions on Syria in the United Nations Security Council.

The ISW says the Russian air strikes — if they hit the areas reported — would signal Moscow’s intent “to assist in the Syrian regime’s war effort at large, rather than securing the regime’s coastal heartland”.

This week, both US president Barack Obama and secretary of state John Kerry said Mr Assad must step down if Islamic State is to be defeated in the country. Mr Obama, speaking at a summit in New York about tackling Islamic State, said Mr Assad was “one of the recruiting sergeants” for IS because of “what he’s done to his people”.

The US has also trained a number of Syrian rebels to fight against Islamic State in a $500 million program run out of Turkey.

The Assad regime has been criticised for its brutality, including the killing of civilians in air strikes.

Russia has been a major exporter of arms and supplies to Syria. Russian companies have also signed contracts with the Syrian government for energy exploration and production along the coastline.


abc.net.au

Topics: unrest-conflict-and-war, foreign-affairs, world-politics, syrian-arab-republic, russian-federation

First posted Thu at 1:31pm