After days of insisting that its military presence in Syria is dedicated to the destruction of the terror group ISIS, Russian officials on Thursday admitted that airstrikes by its warplanes, which began Wednesday and continued overnight into Thursday, are targeting more than just the so-called Islamic State.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that Russia was coordinating with the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to identify targets as the Syrian Army struggles to maintain control of the parts of the country that have not been overrun by ISIS or occupied by rebel groups fighting Assad’s forces.
“Russia’s air forces will be operating in Syria as long as the Syrian army pushes ahead with the offensive,” Peskov said, according to the state-run TASS news service. “It should be remembered that this is an operation to support the Syrian armed forces in the struggle with the Islamic State and other extremist groups.”
The key addendum Peskov’s statement is the phrase “other extremist groups.” Assad has characterized the rebels fighting him as terrorists and extremists.
“In fact, these organizations are well-known. And the targets are identified in coordination with the Syrian armed forces,” Peskov said. “All current reports must be treated with utmost scrutiny. There have been many distortions and juggling with facts and a great deal of falsehoods. One should be very careful so as not to fall victim to distorted interpretations.”
The U.S., France, and other Western nations engaged in the effort to push back ISIS in Syria and Iraq have expressed alarm about Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. They’re especially concerned that Russian military power will be used less to battle ISIS than to support the Assad regime, which has come under international criticism for using chemical weapons, indiscriminate bombing of civilians and torture to reinforce its hold on power.
That worry appeared justified Wednesday and Thursday amid reports that Russian strikes were concentrated in parts of Syria where ISIS has no notable presence, but which are controlled by rebels fighting Assad.
On Thursday, Russian media carried video footage of what the Kremlin claimed were strikes on ISIS. The Washington Post, in analyzing satellite imagery, was able to discover the precise site of one particular strike, which was 40 miles away from the nearest ISIS stronghold.
Russia officials touted strikes in the cities of Homs and Hama; neither city is in or even particularly near territory controlled by ISIS.
One group that does appear to have been targeted by Russian strikes is the so-called Army of Conquest, an alliance of rebel groups. Some are loyal to the terrorist group al-Qaeda, which has been fighting against both Assad’s forces and ISIS.
Reports of attacks on other rebels backed by the U.S., and of large numbers of civilian casualties, were angrily denied by Russian officials. However, U.S. officials, including Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said that Russia’s original claim that it was targeting ISIS don’t hold up.
“We have been observing Russian activities and I don’t want to go into detail about that at this time, but the reason, one of the reasons why the Russian position is contradictory is exactly the potential for them to strike as they may well have in places where ISIL is not present … others are present,” Carter said to reporters on Wednesday.
He added that Russia’s involvement in the complex conflict in Syria is “tantamount to pouring gasoline on the fire.”
Asked about the Russian activity by U.S. reporters, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov late Wednesday told them not to trust the information coming out of the U.S. Defense Department. “Do not listen to the Pentagon about Russian strikes; ask the Russian Defense Ministry,” Lavrov said.
Russian officials uniformly defended the strikes as both legal and effective, and almost all, by Thursday, had adopted Peskov’s construction of “other terrorist organizations” in describing its targets.
The speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, Sergey Naryshkin, said on Thursday, “Russia launched the military operation in the Syrian Arab Republic to fight against terrorist groups and units of the so-called Islamic State and other terrorist organizations on the territory in full compliance with the international law and in response to the request of Syria’s legitimate authorities.”