Homs Media Center / AP

Russia defends strikes bolstering Assad government ‘weak spots’

While Moscow’s airstrikes were framed as primarily an anti-ISIL operation, targets have included other Syrian rebels

Russia acknowledged on Thursday that it was hitting a list of well-known Syrian rebel targets in addition to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as it continued a second day of airstrikes in defense of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The launch of Russia's aerial campaign has opened up a volatile phase in the conflict.

Moscow previously framed its military buildup and subsequent air campaign in Syria as aimed at countering ISIL, but its acknowledgment and reports from the United States and Syrian rebel groups suggest that the operation was pitched much more broadly in support of Assad's positions.

"The aim is really to help the armed forces of Syria in their weak spots," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, when asked whether that was Russia's objective, saying the targets were not limited to ISIL. "These organizations are well known, and the targets are chosen in coordination with the armed forces of Syria.”

Russian jets appeared to be primarily bombing central and northwestern Syria, strategic regions that are the gateway to Assad's strongholds on the coast and in the capital, Damascus. The U.S. and its allies fear that Russia, which has backed Assad and his father before him, is using the air campaign as a pretext to go after rebel groups aside from ISIL, include U.S.-backed ones.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Russian airstrikes in the central province of Hama hit locations of the CIA-trained rebel group Tajamu Alezzah on Wednesday and Thursday.

"What is important is Russia has to not be engaged in any activities against anybody but ISIL," Secretary of State John Kerry said. "That's clear. We have made that very clear."

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Pentagon officials participated in an hourlong videoconference with Russian officials in an initial discussion of ways to avoid U.S. and Russian forces firing on each other in Syria.

The Pentagon protested the choice of Moscow’s targets.

Earnest described Russia's operations, which began Monday, as "indiscriminate military operations against the Syrian opposition" that were dangerous for Russia. Elissa Slotkin, who represented the U.S. in Thursday's Pentagon talks, said as much during the call with the Russians, according to Earnest. Slotkin is the acting assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs.

"She pointed out that the Russian military operations we've seen so far raise some concerns because Russia is targeting areas where there are few if any ISIL forces operating," Earnest said.

Russia's Defense Ministry said Thursday that over the past 24 hours it damaged or destroyed 12 targets in Syria belonging to ISIL, including a command center and ammunition depots. On Wednesday, Sergei Ivanov, President Vladimir Putin's chief of staff, said, "The operation's target is solely air support for the Syrian government forces in their fight against the ISIS," using another acronym for the group.

But a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, Col. Steve Warren, said on Thursday that he had no indication that the Russians had hit ISIL targets.

Lt. Gen. Robert Otto, the deputy chief of staff for intelligence and surveillance for the U.S. Air Force, said Thursday that even as the U.S. tries to make sure Russian airstrikes don't conflict with the U.S.-led coalition's operations in Syria, he does not believe there will be any real intelligence sharing with Moscow.

"I have a low level of trust in the Russians. It's trust but verify," he said. "It's easy, then, to exchange factual data where you're going to operate. I would not envision a relationship where I would share some of my intelligence with them."

Russia's airstrikes are its biggest military intervention outside its region in decades, adding a complex dimension to Syria's four-year civil war as Putin moves forcefully to stake out influence in the highly unstable region.

Possible Iranian escalation

In a sign that Syria could be poised for yet another wave of violence, two Lebanese sources told Reuters that Iranian troops were on the verge of conducting a major ground offensive along with their Lebanese Hezbollah allies, supported by the new Russian campaign.

Hundreds of Iranian troops have arrived in Syria in the last 10 days, according to the sources.

“The [Russian] airstrikes will in the near future be accompanied by ground advances by the Syrian army and its allies,” said one of the sources familiar with political and military developments in the conflict.

The two sources said the operation will be aimed at recapturing territory that Assad lost to rebels.

It could point to an emerging military alliance among Russia and Assad's other main allies, Iran and Hezbollah, focused on recapturing areas of northwestern Syria that were seized by insurgents in rapid advances earlier this year.

Thus far, direct Iranian military support for Assad has come mostly in the form of military advisers. Iran has mobilized Shia militia fighters, including Iraqis and some Afghans, to fight alongside Syrian government forces.

Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, has been fighting alongside the Syrian army since early on in the conflict.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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