Rebel groups in Syria are gearing up for a longer, bloodier battle to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad because of Russian airstrikes that they say have been designed to drive them back.
For the second day in a row, fighters aligned with the Free Syrian Army claimed Russian airstrikes targeted their positions in Homs, al-Za’farana and Idlib, as well as those of other rebel groups.
Still, they say they will not be deterred.
“We have been using military tactics, moving our command and control centers since the beginning of the attack,” Iyad Shamsi, leader of an FSA Syrian rebel group, the Asala and Tanmieh Front, told VOA by phone from Syria.
“We have also been regrouping and redeploying our elements,” he said.
Other rebel groups claim they are already taking the fight directly to the “Russian infidels.”
Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad, which has pledged allegiance to the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaida affiliate, said it was responsible for a September 29 attack on Russian forces at the Hamim military airbase in Latakia province, The Long War Journal reported.
“KTJ's [Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad] claimed strike in Latakia is almost certainly just the first of more to come,” said Senior Editor Thomas Joscelyn. “Al-Nusra and its allies, including Chechen jihadists, have a presence in parts of Latakia already, so they will be attacking.”
Complicating matters, some of the Russian airstrikes may have hit rebel groups that had been receiving backing from the United States, specifically the CIA.
Shamsi, the rebel leader who spoke with VOA, refused to say whether his group was among them. When asked whether any help was on the way, he responded that help had been coming all along from a “friendly country.”
U.S. defense officials refused to say Thursday whether any aid was in the offing. But former intelligence officials say Washington will have to do something unless it wants to risk losing credibility with both current and future partners.
“From a geopolitical standpoint we just can’t wash our hands and say that didn’t work out,” said Patrick Skinner, now director of special projects at the Soufan Group.
Still, the prospect of a fundamental shift in U.S. policy — with officials sending a broad array of rebel groups advanced weaponry, like shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles — comes with its own downside.
“They’re going to be giving weapons to the people the Russians are directly bombing, and that’s where it gets really, really dicey,” Skinner said. “It’s going to be the fight that no one really wanted but that everyone figured was going to happen.”
A day after Russian airstrikes in Syria appeared to hit moderate opposition targets, officials in Washington had pointed questions for Moscow.
“We noted our concerns about where they’ve targeted so far and how it's inconsistent with their own stated goal of defeating ISIL,” said Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook.
The White House was similarly critical.
“If Russia is genuinely focused on fighting ISIL, then they will make the kind of constructive contribution to the 65-member anti-ISIL coalition that the United States is leading,” said spokesman Josh Earnest.
Russia explains its strikes in Syria are targeting Islamic State militants and other terrorists, adding that they see “eye to eye with the coalition.”
“If it looks like a terrorist, if it acts like a terrorist, if it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist, it’s a terrorist – right?” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
But while Islamic State is widely considered a terror group, some moderate opposition fighters, who are fighting Islamic State and are not considered terrorists by the coalition, are called terrorists by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government.
“We have made clear the importance of the moderate Syrian opposition in terms of Syria’s political future, and that anything done to harm that moderate Syria opposition is counterproductive to the end result that we believe is necessary and that is a political transition in Syria,” said Cook.
The coalition says it continues to provide air support for anti-Islamic State forces in Syria who have been trained by U.S. forces.
“Our mission is to defeat ISIL. Our New Syrian Force troops, their mission is to defeat ISIL, and as that happens we will provide them with airstrike capabilities,” said Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for the coalition.
No U.S. shift
At least publicly, the White House signaled Thursday that no shift in policy is coming anytime soon.
"We haven't seen the kind of change that would prompt a significant, broad re-evaluation of our policy," spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.
“There’s a real danger the United States can become irrelevant in this particular conflict,” said Salman Shaikh, a former U.N. official who now heads the Shaikh Group. “One can understand the desire of President [Barack] Obama not to get involved in another Middle East conflict, but I’m afraid this is one he can’t really choose on.”
There is a sense by some that Washington may be able to wait out the escalating crisis in Syria, that Russia’s intervention on behalf of Assad will not lead to any meaningful change.
“The important thing to remember about the current Russian intervention is that it doesn’t fundamentally change the dynamics of the actual conflict in Syria,” said Jessica Ashooh, deputy director of the Middle East Strategy Task Force at the Washington-based Atlantic Council. “Russia doesn’t have the military capabilities to actually put a stop to the insurgencies.”
Ashooh said to effect any lasting change, Russia would have to commit substantial ground forces to the conflict, which it has been reluctant to do.
Only it may not have to.
Reports Thursday indicated Iran, also a staunch supporter of Assad, had sent hundreds of troops over the past 10 days, possibly to take part in a major ground offensive.
U.S. intelligence and defense officials refused to confirm the number of Iranian troops but said Iran’s involvement came as no surprise.
“We know the Iranians are a part of this,” U.S. Colonel Steve Warren told reporters from Baghdad. “They've been part of this since the very beginning.”
Still, analysts warn an influx of ground forces to help bolster Assad, whether Russian or Iranian, could change momentum in the conflict.
There is also a risk that other countries, like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, will decide to increase their backing for rebel groups fighting against Syria’s Assad and possibly the Russians.
When asked Thursday in New York who would lead a threatened military campaign to force Assad from power, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said, "We'll see.”
Katherine Gypson, Carla Babb and Diaa Bekheet contributed to this story.