Russia’s military intervention in Syria has been sold to the world as action against Daesh but it is now clear that the real targets are anyone but the militant group. On the first day of the airstrikes, 65 people were killed, the vast majority civilians. The casualties of these airstrikes are added to the estimated 200-300,000 casualties of the Syrian conflict – 95 per cent of them caused by the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights. Activists uploaded videos of a child injured by the airstrikes in Talbiseh and a mosque destroyed in Jisr Al-Shughour as a result of the strikes, but they have broadcast many such videos in the past, when Al-Assad’s planes dropped missiles, barrel bombs, and chlorine and mustard gas on civilian towns and villages, and been ignored by the world’s media.
The Russian airstrikes struck targets in Idlib, Hama and Homs provinces. The targets included Talbiseh, Rastan, Latamneh and Kafr Zeita. These towns are not well-known in the west but Syrians know them as centres of peaceful protest against the regime following the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in 2011 and later as sites of massacres in which dozens of people died as the Assad regime took revenge on its own people. Another town attacked by Russia – Kafranbel – has a symbolic significance as the “pulse of the Syrian revolution”. With its innovative protests featuring English-language banners held every Friday for the past four years, this small town told an uncaring world what Syrians were thinking.
Russia, it seems, wants to finish the job that Assad started but is unable to complete. After a long publicity campaign in which Putin’s government tried to present itself as saving the world from Daesh, receiving the backing of the Russian Orthodox Church in the process, Russia admitted that it was targeting groups with no connection to Daesh. A spokesman for President Putin said: “These organisations are well known and the targets are chosen in coordination with the armed forces of Syria.”
What he didn’t say was that the nearest Daesh position to any of the areas Russia attacked on Wednesday and Thursday was 55 kilometres away. This is anything but an anti-Daesh campaign. Daesh was driven out of the province of Idlib in January 2014 by the very same rebel groups that Russia is targeting today. The Assad regime, like the Russian government, would like the world to believe that it is fighting Daesh but in practice it has left the group to itself, allowing it to take over most of eastern Syria.
The groups targeted include included Tajammu’ Al-Izza, the Homs Liberation Front, Suqur Al-Jabal, Ahrar Al-Sham and other groups, most of whom are part of the Jaish Al-Fateh coalition. Jabhat Al-Nusra, a group with links to Al-Qaeda, has been loudly trumpeted by the world’s media and is also present in the areas targeted by Russia. What the media doesn’t usually say is that no more than ten per cent of the Syrian rebels are members of this group and its connections to Al-Qaeda are tenuous at best, with most of its rank-and-file motivated by opposition to the Assad regime, not affinity to Al-Qaeda’s ideology.
The United States has publicly criticised the Russian airstrikes, calling them “indiscriminate” and saying that they will only “fuel extremism”. However, the Russian strikes come days after a summit between Presidents Putin and Obama and despite the US’s rhetorical opposition to both the Russian strikes and Al-Assad’s regime, there is in practice little difference in the two countries’ policy towards Syria. The US has carried out its own airstrikes in the province of Idlib against fighters with no connection to Daesh – killing dozens of civilians and on one occasion 25 Free Syrian Army fighters.
Despite constantly proclaiming, since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011, that “Assad must go” and that “his days are numbered”, the general consensus among Syrians is that the US is tacitly supporting the Assad regime. To say that the US’s supply of weapons to rebel groups has been meagre is to exaggerate their importance. The US has actively prevented the rebels from acquiring anti-aircraft missiles, which would both save the lives of civilians targeted by Assad’s (and now Russia’s) airstrikes and be a real game changer. If they have had any effect at all, US arms supplies have served simply to keep the Syrian conflict going rather than to help the rebels achieve victory – a victory that the US has already said it doesn’t want to see. The US and its allies have also refused to impose a no-fly zone despite the pleas of the White Helmets – civil defence workers who save the lives of people trapped under the rubble of the Assad regime’s indiscriminate barrel bomb strikes.
Russian and US military leaders are now in “de-confliction” talks to ensure that their airstrikes in Syria do not overlap and they do not accidentally clash over Syrian skies. Before the airstrikes began, Russia also held talks with Israel, apparently obtaining a green light for strikes on rebel held areas.
Following the Russian airstrikes, the Assad regime is now gearing up for a major assault on rebel held territory, assisted by Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese sectarian militias. If the regime’s previous record is anything to go by, the inhabitants of these areas await a horrifying fate – the regime is not averse to committing field executions, killing children and burning people alive.
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