Russian President Vladimir Putin said the country had begun a campaign of airstrikes in Syria targeting ISIS militants, but opposition sources and footage from the ground appeared to show that it was targeting Western-backed rebels instead.
The campaign marks the Kremlin's first major intervention in a distant foreign conflict since it invaded Afghanistan during the Soviet Union's dying days, and comes two days after Putin met President Barack Obama in New York.
Putin said the campaign, launched hours after Putin got unanimous approval by the upper house of the Russian Duma for limited airstrikes, would last for the duration of a Syrian ground offensive, state media reported, and not include Russian ground forces. The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said it had approved the intervention as part of a joint effort to combat terrorism.
The first wave of airstrikes hit the provinces of Homs, Latakia, and Hama on Wednesday afternoon, AFP reported, citing a Syrian security source. Syrian Civil Defense, a network of emergency workers who rescue Syrians from attacks, counted at least 33 civilians killed in Russian air strikes in Talbiseh and Zaafaraneh, two districts near Homs, including three children and a member of their group, dubbed the White Helmets.
Syrian activists and analysts said the Russian-led effort targeted solely districts controlled by other rebel groups fighting against the Assad regime. Videos posted online showed chaotic scenes of carnage and destruction near the cities of Idlib, Hama, and Homs, including areas controlled by rebels from the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army. One video that was posted on YouTube purported to show that Russians had targeted the headquarters of the Tajamu al-Izza, a moderate and increasingly effective FSA group vetted by the CIA to receive anti-tank missiles.
Jamil Al-Saleh, the leader of Tajamu al-Izza, told BuzzFeed News there were no ISIS units near Hama, the group's headquarters. "We believe that Russia came to end the FSA and keep terrorist groups to kill the revolution," he said. "They don't care if the U.S. or any other countries support us."
The raids in Homs killed 32 civilians and wounded a further 10, Osama Abu Zaid, a spokesman for the FSA, told BuzzFeed News. "They were given the commands by Assad to kill civilians — it's Assad's and Russia's strategy," he said.
Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for Russia's foreign ministry, said reports of civilian casualties were an "information attack" in a long-term campaign waged against Moscow by the West and Ukraine.
"Russia targeted only groups that are not ISIS and it may have targeted groups backed by the U.S.," said Michael Horowitz, senior intelligence analyst at the Levantine Group, a security consultancy. "It's really clear that the airstrikes were not meant to target ISIS."
Putin told a cabinet meeting Wednesday that Russia was acting to preempt the threat posed by Russian-speaking militants in the region, whose numbers the Kremlin estimates at over 2,500. "It's no secret that the so-called 'Islamic State' has long since declared Russia its enemy," Putin said, state media reported. "The only true path of fighting international terrorism — the gangs raging in Syria and on the territory of neighboring countries are indeed international terrorists — is to act preemptively, to fight with and destroy militants and terrorists on the territories they have already captured, not to wait for them to come to our house."
Russian officials lined up to praise the intervention. "As a great state, we cannot but do our bit to fight this terrible evil," Valentina Matvienko, chair of the upper house of parliament, said on state television, likening ISIS to a "hydra." Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman leader of Chechnya, a mostly Muslim province in Russia's south from where many of the Russian-speaking ISIS fighters hail, said he was upset that Russia was not using ground forces, and offered to send Chechen divisions to Syria at the first opportunity.
Nearly every official who commented on the airstrikes, including Putin himself, insisted that ground troops would not be used in the campaign. "Of course, our conscripts will not be taking part in any operations abroad," Gen. Nikolai Bogdanovsky, first deputy chief of general staff, told the Interfax news agency. Memories of the Afghan war in the 1980s, when thousands of Russian conscripts came home in containers marked "CARGO-200," mean Russians remain wary of an extended ground campaign. Nearly 70% of Russians oppose Moscow providing direct military aid to Assad, according to a recent poll by the independent Levada Center. Several soldiers face treason charges after refusing deployment to Syria, according to the news site Gazeta.ru.
State television, whose war correspondents have relocated from eastern Ukraine to Syria in recent weeks, showed rolling images of destruction it said was caused by ISIS. Leaders of state-sanctioned religious organizations voiced their approval to state newswires. "Syria is almost our neighbor, it's not far from our southern border, and if someone across the ocean has anything to do with what's happening there, it affects us all the more," said Talgat Salfuddin, Russia's grand mufti.
Vsevolod Chaplin, a senior figure in the Russian Orthodox Church, said that Russia's fight against terrorism was "sacred" — a clear reference to "Sacred War," the most famous Soviet battle hymn from World War II. Putin evoked the coalition against Hitler in his address to the United Nations on Monday, saying that he intended to lead a global "anti-terrorist coalition" in its image.
Days earlier, Putin and other senior Russian officials disclosed the formation of a Baghdad-based operations and intelligence center meant to coordinate Iraqi, Iranian, Syrian, and Russian efforts against ISIS. But Tehran and Moscow have always used an expansive definition of ISIS to include all rebel groups fighting against the Assad regime, which ignited a civil war more than four years ago when it used the full brunt of its armed forces against peaceful protesters demanding political change.
The Assad regime provides Russia with a Middle East stronghold and grants Iran a conduit to funnel weapons to Hezbollah, its ally in Lebanon. But Western powers insist he and his family leave power before any peace can be forged. France on Wednesday announced an investigation into the Assad regime's alleged crimes against humanity.
The areas targeted were mostly strongholds of Jaish al-Fatah, a coalition of rebel groups that includes the Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, but also the popular Ahrar al-Sham, a hardline Islamist rebel group backed by Turkey and Qatar. All the targets were far to the west of ISIS strongholds in eastern and northeastern Syria, but key to protecting Assad's dominion in the country's northwest and the capital, Damascus.
"It means that Russia is really in Syria to defend its own interest," said Horowitz. "These are targets meant to protect the northern coast where Russia has has a naval base, and they're not there to target ISIS."
In fact, within the complex strategic calculus of Syria's civil war, the air strikes against Jaish al-Fatah could actually strengthen ISIS; both moderate and Islamist rebel groups fight ISIS as well as the Syrian regime.
The Russian attacks on Wednesday appeared an open act of defiance against U.S. officials. Days ago, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter warned that any Russian attack on moderate rebels would further escalate and complicate the Syria conflict. "
One of the ways that Russia would...contribute to exacerbating the problems and the violence in Syria — the very violence they fear the consequences of for Russia — would be to indiscriminately attack all the foes of Assad," he told reporters. "It's a matter of pouring gasoline on the civil war in Syria."
U.S. officials said that Russia warned them of the airstrikes a few hours in advance, AFP reported, and requested that U.S. missions avoid Syrian airspace. Secretary of State John Kerry complained to Sergey Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, that the airstrikes ran contrary to Russia's vows to avoid working at cross purposes with the U.S. campaign against ISIS.