A round of Russian air strikes on the ISIS-free province of Latakia reportedly killed Basil Zimmo, a brigade commander in the U.S.-aligned “moderate” Free Syrian Army, along with a number of civilians.
According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the dead and wounded included both rebels and their families. The Observatory put the death toll at 45 and counting, while Reuters reports an estimate of five rebel fighters and 15 civilians killed from a Free Syrian Army spokesman. The death toll from the strike is expected to rise, as many of the wounded were critically injured.
The BBC reports that Russia claims it was attacking Islamic State positions, but “activists say the jihadist group has little or no presence in the coastal province, which is a stronghold of President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite sect.”
“Moderate and Islamist rebel groups took control of Jabal al-Akrad in 2012,” the BBC writes. “From positions in the mountainous region, they have been able to shell the city of Latakia’s airport and Qardaha, the president’s ancestral village.”
The area was hit by several previous Russian strikes before Monday’s heavy-casualty operation, which Syrian opposition activists say targeted the village of Bisharfeh, where many women and children lived. Reuters claims the Russians continued bombing the site even after rescue workers arrived at the scene.
The division commanded by the late Basil Zimmo had been equipped with TOW anti-tank missiles by the United States, according to the BBC, which adds that another Free Syrian Army-aligned commander was killed in a ground engagement with regime forces near Aleppo on Monday.
According to a report at Al-Masdar News, Zimmo was “attending a private meeting with the Free Syrian Army’s 1st Coastal Brigades Central Command” when the Russians bombed the Latakia mountains, which are generally seen as Kurdish territory. Zimmo was a captain in the Syrian military before defecting to join the rebellion, and is described as the “chief of staff” for the FSA at the time of his death.
The area doesn’t have much of an ISIS presence, but al-Qaeda’s franchise the Nusra Front can be found there, and according to al-Masdar, a powerful ground attack from elite Syrian Army forces attacked with Russian air cover and killed over 30 Nusra fighters, including “a number of foreigners from Chechnya, Dagestan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Turkey, and Lebanon.”