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Russian Warplanes Target Variety of Rebel Groups in Syria

FILE - A damaged military vehicle is seen along a road in Freikeh village after fighters from an Islamist coalition took control of the village from forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Idlib, Syria, July 30, 2015.
FILE - A damaged military vehicle is seen along a road in Freikeh village after fighters from an Islamist coalition took control of the village from forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Idlib, Syria, July 30, 2015.

Russia has said the aim of its military buildup in Syria is to help battle against Islamic State extremists and "terrorist aggression," but two days of Russian airstrikes on Syrian territory this week have told a different story.

Russian aircraft do not appear to be striking Islamic State targets but instead a wide variety of Islamist rebel groups, some backed by the United States, that are operating in northwestern Syria on the front lines against the Syrian regime.

Russia's main target has been the Army of Conquest, an alliance of insurgent groups that includes the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaida's affiliate in Syria, and the hard-line Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, as well as some less extreme Islamist groups, reports VOA correspondent Jamie Dettmer.

Relatively moderate groups from what is left of the Free Syrian Army, including some that have received U.S. training and advanced U.S.-made anti-tank missiles, have fought alongside the Army of Conquest. The Free Syrian Army is loose-knit group founded by former Syrian military officers.

The Army of Conquest is intent on bringing down Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and it opposes Islamic State.

Protecting Assad

Russian jets have been bombing areas in Idlib province, which is almost totally controlled by the Army of Conquest, VOA's Dettmer said. He said Russia, too, has attacked parts of the provinces of Hama and Homs that also are under the control of the Army of Conquest.

The Army of Conquest has advanced on government forces in northwestern Syria in recent months and has support from countries in the region that oppose Assad and Islamic State.

An analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, Christopher Kozak, said Russia's goal in carrying out attacks in northwestern Syria is to protect the coastal provinces that constitute Assad's base. The Islamic State is most active in areas significantly to the east of where the Russians have struck thus far.

"The choice of targeting thus far has made it clear that the Russian priority is not actually to focus on or prioritize necessarily the fight against ISIS, but instead to bolster Assad's regime," Kozak told VOA. "The Army of Conquest coalition that had been making big gains in the northwest was impinging on the regime heartland along the Syrian coast in Latakia province, where the Russian airstrikes are actually based out of. So these strikes are a way to give breathing room to the Syrian regime."

"The main priority of the Russians is preserving the structures of the Syrian regime, the structures of the Syrian state, to be their foothold in the Middle East and to be their leverage point within the region," Kozak said. "I think the only way the Russians see that moving forward is if Assad is in power. They don't really see an alternative to that."

U.S.-supported groups

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported that at least two of Russia's airstrikes in Hama province have hit locations of a U.S.-backed rebel group, Tajamu Alezzah, which is affiliated with the Free Syrian Army. The group has apparently received anti-tank missiles under a covert program run in part by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Russian warplanes reportedly attacked another U.S.-supported group, Liwa Suqour al-Jabal, on Thursday at its training camp in Idlib province. The commander of the group told the Reuters news service that it had received military training from the CIA in Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

U.S. Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and an outspoken critic of Obama's policies in Syria, told CNN on Thursday that Russian airplanes had conducted airstrikes on groups "funded and trained" by the CIA.

Syria's ambassador to Russia, Riad Haddad, said Thursday that the Russian airstrikes were directed against "terrorists," likening all rebel groups fighting against Assad to Islamic State.

"We in Syria are clashing with armed terrorist groups," Haddad said. "Independent from what they call themselves, Jabhat al-Nusra, Islamic State, the Free Representatives of Syria — it's not important. They all follow the terrorist goals of Islamic State. The Syrian army, with the support of the Russian air force and air cover, carry out strikes and they all are directed against armed terrorist groups."