Moscow says its enemy is ISIS, but the initial phase of its air war in Syria hit American-backed rebels battling Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.
Barack Obama’s administration said Wednesday that it doesn’t know whom Russia is bombing inside Syria. Rebel leaders on the ground there say they know precisely whom Moscow is targeting — and it isn’t the Islamic State.
Instead, Russia’s first airstrikes in Syria — which dominated the final day of the United Nations General Assembly session — appear to have struck a rebel group that likely was vetted by the CIA, uses U.S.-made weapons, and has publicly backed the international coalition fighting the Islamic State. The group is also part of the ad hoc alliance of militias battling the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which means that the early phase of Moscow’s military intervention will strengthen Assad at least as much as it will weaken the Islamic State.
Jamil al-Saleh, a defected Syrian army officer who is now the leader of the rebel group Tajammu al-Aaza, told AlSouria.net that the Russian airstrikes targeted his group’s base in al-Lataminah, a town in the western Syrian governorate of Hama. That area represents one of the farthest southern points of the rebel advance from the north and is therefore a crucial front line in the war. An alliance of Syrian rebel factions, including both the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front and groups considered by Washington to be more moderate, successfully drove Assad regime forces out of the northern governorate of Idlib and are now pushing south into Hama.
Tajammu al-Aaza released a video of the airstrike and its aftermath before Saleh’s statement. Syrian security sources also confirmed that a Russian airstrike took place in al-Lataminah. The Russian Defense Ministry, meanwhile, released a video of what it said was one of the strikes.
U.S. officials were quick to criticize the strikes, which they said had hit targets that didn’t appear to be linked to the Islamic State. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said at the Pentagon that the strikes were in areas “where there probably were not ISIL forces,” using an alternate acronym for the group. White House spokesman Josh Earnest, for his part, told reporters that it was “too early for me to say exactly what targets they were aiming at and what targets were actually hit.”
The strikes come amid a flurry of diplomatic maneuvering at the United Nations, where Moscow and Washington have traded potshots about who is to blame for the rise of the Islamic State and who should take the lead in fighting the group.
In public comments at the United Nations, Russian officials have said that the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State isn’t working and instead have called for working more closely with Assad and Iran to defeat the group. But rather than spurring cooperation over the shared threat posed by the Islamic State, Moscow’s moves threaten to usher in a new era of conflict with Washington by weakening groups devoted to the fight against Assad while bolstering Tehran’s influence in the region.
Tajammu al-Aaza, for instance, has posted several videos of its fighters deploying U.S.-made anti-tank missiles against Syrian regime forces. One video shows fighters launching a missile at a Syrian army tank stationed at a checkpoint in the Hama countryside.
Experts say those videos show that the group is clearly receiving American weaponry. According to N.R. Jenzen-Jones, the director of specialist technical intelligence consultancy Armament Research Services, or ARES, the video of the attack on the Syrian tank shows a U.S.-made AN/TSQ-136 missile guidance set, consistent with other U.S.-made TOW missile systems that ARES has documented being used in Syria.
According to Jenzen-Jones, the missiles “offer a noteworthy increase in anti-armor capability when compared to the majority of systems which are employed by the Syrian Arab Army and various rebel groups.”
U.S.-made military equipment, most prominently anti-tank missiles, have been distributed to rebels through an operations center, called the Military Operations Command (MOC), that’s organized by countries arming the anti-Assad opposition, which allows them to vet the groups receiving support. The operations center reportedly includes U.S. intelligence officers, which suggests that the United States authorized the distribution of weapons to Tajammu al-Aaza.
“Tajammu al-Aaza is widely reputed to receive support from the MOC, and the fact that the group has documented its use of U.S.-made anti-tank missiles over a period of several months strongly suggests this is the case,” said Noah Bonsey, a senior analyst for the Middle East at the International Crisis Group. “They seem to have passed MOC vetting, which suggests the U.S. and other state backers view them as mainstream rather than extremist, and relatively reliable.”
One reason the United States may have allowed arms to flow to Tajammu al-Aaza is because rather than being an ally of the Islamic State, it has actually endorsed the U.S.-led air campaign against the jihadist movement. The group signed a statement that referred to the Islamic State as a “threat to the Syrian revolution” and that called on the U.S.-led international coalition to expand its air campaign to strike the Assad regime.
Earlier Wednesday, State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement that a Russian official had informed the United States that Russia would begin flying missions over Syria shortly before the strikes began. It’s not clear whether Moscow also told the United States that the first group it would bomb would be one that had received arms from Washington.
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