Russia carries out a second day of airstrikes against U.S.-trained Syrian rebel forces, while the Kremlin admits it is targeting groups other than ISIS militants in coordination with the Assad regime.
During his talks with French counterpart Francois Hollande on Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted that Russia has been targeting exclusively ISIS.
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But the Kremlin appeared to admit bombing not just ISIS targets as U.S.-backed Syrian rebels reported that they had been hit by airstrikes reportedly from Russian aircraft.
Washington accused Moscow of carrying out “indiscriminate military operations against the Syrian opposition,” while the White House spokesman Josh Earnest noted that U.S. surveillance saw airstrikes that targeted areas where there were “few if any” ISIS militants.
U.S. officials called on Russia to use its airstrikes in Syria only against ISIS militants rather than target rivals and opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is responsible for the Syrian Civil War that has killed nearly 250,000 people.
Iran announced on Thursday it supported the Russian airstrikes, while unverified reports claim that Iranian armed forces were recently deployed in Syria, which creates the risk of other Middle East states getting involved in the deadly conflict.
Syrian rebels report being hit by Russian airstrikes
The Russia defense ministry issued a statement saying it hit 12 ISIS targets, including two weapon depots and a command center. However, as it was later verified, it turned out the areas where Russia carried out its bombings were not held by ISIS militants.
Syrian activists reported being hit by reportedly Russian airstrikes in the north and center of Syria, including in the province of Hama, in which Russian airstrikes hit areas held by another U.S.-backed rebel group, Tajamu al-Izzah.
Meanwhile, a pro-Assad Lebanese TV channel reported that Russia launched 30 bombings against Jaysh al-Fateh, a notorious Islamist rebel coalition that comprises of Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Qaida-affiliated al-Nusra Front.
With Putin claiming Russia carries out airstrikes only on ISIS-held locations, his own spokesman Dmitry Peskov contradicted his words on Thursday, saying that Russia was also targeting other organizations in addition to ISIS.
“These organizations are well known and the targets are chosen in coordination with the armed forces of Syria,” Peskov told the AP.
Russia hits the camp of CIA-trained rebels group
When asked whether Russia targets the Free Syrian Army, the U.S.-backed group that was set up by Syrian army defectors after the conflict began, Peskov tried to elude the question by saying:
“Does it exist, the Free Syrian Army? Haven’t most of them switched to IS group? It existed but whether it does now nobody knows for sure, it’s a relative concept.”
But the commander of an FSA-affiliated group confirmed Thursday that two Russian airstrikes hit a camp held by the group, which had been trained by the CIA in Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
On Wednesday, Russia launched a series of airstrikes that have killed 36 people, including five women and six children, according to rebel opposition groups.
Russian aircraft began dropping bombs in Syria hours after Putin had pushed a measure through the upper house of the Russian parliament approving the use of Russian military forces abroad.
The vote came after a request by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for military assistance in fighting ISIS militants, according to Russian officials.
Alarming high risk of U.S.-Russia clash in Syria
“We can’t believe an even more advanced military power has arrived in Syria to kill civilians,” one Syrian civil defense volunteer said in a statement issued by his organization.
In retaliation for Russian airstrikes, Syrian rebels claim to have launched an offensive operation in northern Homs against Assad’s troops and pro-Syrian government civilian areas using Grad rockets.
Meanwhile, there is the alarming high risk of a military clash between U.S. and Russian forces in Syria, especially given the confusion as to which rebel areas are targeted by Russian airstrikes.
Washington and its allies, including several Persian Gulf countries are carrying out airstrikes in areas held by ISIS militants, while Russia and Assad regime troops appear to be targeting U.S.-trained rebel groups across the country.
The alarming possibilities of an accidental military clash between U.S. and Russian forces urged Washington and Moscow officials to discuss pilot distress signals, language issues and other precautionary measures during a video conference to avoid unnecessary encounters, according to Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook.
Russia, Iran and Hezbollah plan military operation against U.S.-backed Syrian rebels
Meanwhile, hundreds of Iranian troops arrived in Syria 10 days ago along with weapons to take part in the ground combat operations on rebel-held areas in the north of the country.
Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran and has been fighting on the Assad regime’s side since early in the conflict, told Reuters on Thursday that it is preparing to join the operation as well.
The ground combat operation alongside the Syrian army will go hand in hand with Russian airstrikes, according to sources familiar with the military plans.
“The [Russian] airstrikes will in the near future be accompanied by ground advances by the Syrian army and its allies,” said one of the sources, according to Reuters.
Sources claim that the goal of the operation is to regain the territories that Assad has lost in the period of the bloody four-and-half-year-old conflict.
We see an emerging alliance between Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, which will be focused on fighting back the control over the Northern-Western part of Syria, which Assad’s opponents gained earlier this year.
“The vanguard of Iranian ground forces began arriving in Syria: soldiers and officers specifically to participate in this battle. They are not advisors … we mean hundreds with equipment and weapons. They will be followed by more,” the second source told Reuters, adding that Iraqis would also participate in the operation.