The Russians are still insisting their air campaign is targeting the Islamic State, but U.S. officials say the bombs have been dropping on CIA-backed rebel groups.
Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter called the Russian flights unprofessional and dangerous, while Secretary of State John Kerry expressed concerns about the choice of bombing targets to his opposite number, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konoshenkov described the footage released on Wednesday as picturing strikes against “Islamic state military equipment, communication facilities, arms depots, ammunition and fuel supplies,” and claimed none of the bombs struck “civilian infrastructure or areas nearby,” according to Sputnik News.
Konoshenkov added the strikes were launched only after Russia “obtained detailed intelligence from the Syrian armed forces.”
It does not exactly look like precision ordnance in the videos released by the Defense Ministry:
Another video released by the Defense Ministry shows nighttime strikes in Syria:
U.S. officials countered that the actual targets of the Russian strikes had nothing to do with the Islamic State. They were hitting other enemies of the Assad regime, including “an area primarily held by rebels backed by the Central Intelligence Agency and allied spy services,” according to sources quoted by the Wall Street Journal.
Even Syrian state media reports agreed that only one of seven target areas hit by Russian bombers had any known Islamic State presence. Syrian opposition activists said the Russians seemed to be concentrating on areas long besieged by dictator Bashar Assad’s forces, and claimed at least 27 civilian casualties, including six children and five women. It is not yet known if any of the fighters coordinating with the CIA were killed in the attack.
The UK Telegraph reports that Hassan Haj Ali, head of the CIA-trained Liwa Suqour al-Jabal rebel group, confirmed that his camp in Idlib province was hit by some 20 missiles in two separate airstrikes. Other noted “moderate Syrian rebel” leaders have been posting online photos of their towns coming under Russian attack.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter highlighted the danger of uncoordinated Russian military flights passing through airspace already filled with planes from the U.S., Britain, France, and other coalition partners, and said Russia was “pouring gasoline on a fire.”
“I have been dealing with them for a long time. And this is not the kind of behavior that we should expect professionally from the Russian military,” Carter declared.
“The U.S. and its allies were angry at the Russians on many scores: that they are supporting Mr. Assad; that they aren’t coordinating their actions with the existing, U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition; that they provided terse notice only an hour before their operations; that they demanded the U.S. coalition stay out of Syrian airspace; and that they struck in areas where anti-Assad rebels—not Islamic State—operate,” the WSJ writes.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has reportedly agreed to military talks requested by Secretary of State John Kerry. The Wall Street Journal notes that Iraq has said it would welcome Russian airstrikes against the Islamic State, provided the Russians coordinate with the United States and its coalition partners.
According to Haaretz, another group hit hard by Russian bombs were the Turkmens, who claimed 40 civilian casualties were inflicted. The Turkmens have support from the Turkish government, which despises the Assad regime and has long called for decisive Western military action against it. Turkmen fighters have been battling both Assad’s forces and the Islamic State in Syria.
“We strongly condemn Russia, which was not satisfied with its unlimited support of the murderous regime and now rains down bombs on the Syrian people, promising ‘democracy,'” said a statement from the Syrian Turkmen Assembly.
The New York Times reports that the second day of Russian airstrikes also appears to be hitting insurgent groups opposed to the Islamic State, including al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front and the hard-line Islamist militia called Ahrar al-Sham.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has denounced all reports of civilian casualties as an “information attack,” i.e. propaganda, and claimed that reports of civilian deaths were being filed before the Russian planes even took off.
Meanwhile, Russian parliamentarian Alexei Pushkov, who heads the Duma’s Committee for International Affairs, claimed the moderate Syrian opposition is “largely a myth invented by the United States,” and said those fighters who weren’t in league with ISIS have “gone to al-Qaeda, and fired at the Russian embassy.” The latter is a reference to the mortar shell that struck the Russian embassy in Damascus on September 20, without causing any damage – an incident followed by calls for “action” by the Russians.