The U.S.-backed rebel group Tajammu Alezzah has been fighting the Syrian military outside the city of Hama for months, but a new player has joined the fray: Russian warplanes, which have repeatedly hit their front-line positions, followed by airstrikes from government planes.
Russia’s bombing campaign, now a week old, has created a new reality for Syria’s opposition. The rebels say the airstrikes are meant to weaken the rebellion against President Bashar Assad, not just crush the Islamic State and other militants as Moscow contends.
The Russian airstrikes, more powerful than those by the Syrian military, have hit along several key fronts, even attacking rebel bases along the border with Turkey. That’s an area the opposition had considered to be relatively safe because Syria’s air force has avoided it.
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Rebel factions — moderates, Islamists and radicals alike — have had to evacuate some bases and move ammunition stores, according to opposition activists and rebel commanders. The rebels are calling for their regional backers, such as the Gulf countries and Turkey, to boost their support, including more sophisticated weapons like anti-aircraft missiles.
Many warn that the Russian intervention will only strengthen extremists like the Islamic State and al-Qaida’s branch in Syria by rallying people to their side, while the already beleaguered moderate forces are weakened further.
Maj. Jamil al-Saleh, the leader of Tajammu Alezzah, said his forces have had to redeploy to safer areas after 22 of his fighters were wounded in the airstrikes, but they have not withdrawn from the front-lines at Latamneh, a town north of Hama. The airstrikes were clearly intended to tip the area to the government’s favor, he added.
“The regime would like to reclaim this area after many losses,” al-Saleh, a defector from the Syrian military, told The Associated Press. He added that the military wants to achieve victories and “lift the spirits of the regime forces and Shabiha” — a reference to the pro-government militia.
Russia, a longtime ally of Assad, insists its campaign is solely intended to roll back Islamic militants, saying it is targeting the Islamic State group and other radicals like al-Qaida’s branch, the Nusra Front, and hard-line rebel groups such as Ahrar al-Sham.
Some of the airstrikes have indeed targeted IS militants. On Tuesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war, said Russian jets in the past 24 hours had carried out 34 airstrikes in and around the central city of Palmyra, which is held by IS, and outside the group’s de facto capital of Raqqa.
An Islamic State operative denied there were any Russian hits on his group’s locations.
“We benefit from this war and these (rival) coalitions,’ he said in a conversation via Skype, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk on the group’s behalf.
In more than 100 sorties before Monday, the Russians focused on areas in the northwestern province of Idlib and the central provinces of Homs and Hama — all strategic zones in fighting between rebels and the Syrian military. The Observatory and activists in Syria say most of the airstrikes have hit positions of Jaish al-Fatah. That umbrella group includes the Nusra Front and other rebels with hard-line Islamic ideologies, but also moderate factions, such as the Western-backed Free Syrian Army.
On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova underlined that the campaign was hitting only militant groups. But she also seemed to include a spectrum of factions in that category.
“These groups are fluid and they mutate all the time,” she said in Moscow. “If he talks like a terrorist, acts like a terrorist and fights like a terrorist, he is a terrorist,” she said, echoing a statement that her boss, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, used last week at the United Nations.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, in an interview broadcast Monday by the Beirut-based Al-Mayadeen TV, pointed to U.N. Security Council resolutions that denounce the Islamic State group, the Nusra Front and “al-Qaida-affiliated groups” as justification for the targets in the Russian campaign, although the resolutions don’t authorize military action against them.
“If you hit (IS), Nusra Front or Ahrar al-Sham, you are still working within the Security Council resolution,” he said. The resolutions don’t specifically name Ahrar al-Sham, but the Syrian government considers all rebel factions to be “terrorists,” suggesting he was making the argument that a broad range of groups would be considered targets under the resolutions.
Lebanon’s al-Akhbar newspaper, which has close contacts with the Syrian government, quoted an unidentified senior Syrian military official as saying, “All those who carry weapons against the Syrian army are targets” for the Russians. He said the airstrikes were going after insurgent bases in areas that link Idlib, Hama and Homs provinces, and that the campaign had secured Latakia — a coastal city and province that is an Assad stronghold and the heartland of his family’s Alawite sect of Shiite Islam.
A Russian naval base with an estimated 3,000 personnel, is located to the south in neighboring Tartus province.
Retired Lebanese army Gen. Hisham Jaber, who is familiar with the Syrian military, said the Russian aim is to clear the central area of rebels to protect the coastal regions.
He said the Syrian army will then move for a ground operation, with Russian air cover.
The Russians realize they can’t restore Assad’s full prewar status, he said, adding: “They want the Syrian regime to go the negotiating table standing on its legs and not in a wheelchair.”
Syrian airstrikes often follow the Russian bombings in the same areas, activists said. The Russian strikes, however, are dramatically more powerful. Assad Kanjo, an activist from the north who now lives in Turkey, said Russians seem to be using the same targeting information as the Syrian government.
Rami Abdurrahman, the head of the Observatory, said his group had tracked the deaths of 31 Islamic State militants and 15 from the Nusra Front in the Russian airstrikes, as well as 50 civilians. Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, denied any civilians had been killed.
The Russian air campaign poses a new threat for residents of opposition-held areas in a conflict that since early 2011 has killed more than 250,000 people and driven 11 million people — nearly half of Syria’s prewar population — from their homes.
In the town of Saraqib in Idlib province, 23-year-old Raghda Ghanoum and her colleagues were working to set up a volunteer clinic to treat casualties from airstrikes.
“Some people are scared. They say they will evacuate their homes for a few days until they see what happens,” she said, while others will rely on their bunkers.
Experts and opposition activists said moderate factions are likely to suffer most from the Russian campaign, since they already are the weakest. They often join with hard-line factions, which are more powerful and better-armed.
“The middle ground (in the opposition) is being increasingly eroded,” said Matthew Henman, the head of IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency.
The Russian campaign could accelerate that process, he said.
“You have a choice between continuing to fight with the more moderate groups and being wiped out, or joining one of the larger players, which are increasingly becoming the more hard-line Islamist groups,” he said.
Wealthy states in the region, particularly from the Gulf, are likely to increase the funds and arms they have been giving to Islamist factions like the Nusra Front and its allies Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam to counter Russia’s intervention.
In a show of unity, Ahrar al-Sham and 40 other rebel factions, including Islamist and moderates, issued a statement Monday that called Russia’s intervention a new occupation of Syria and proclaiming a “war of liberation.” They urged regional allies to unite in support.
An opposition activist in Homs said Syrian forces were showing more confidence following Russian airstrikes. After using barrel bombs last week, Syrian aircraft dropped leaflets in two villages urging they surrender to the military, he said, speaking on condition he be identified as Bebars al-Talawy, the name he uses in his political activities because he fears for his safety.
The Russian airstrikes send a message that “anyone who lives outside Assad’s areas is targeted, whether civilian, opposition fighter or militants,” he said. “This will force more Syrians to migrate or force fighters to hand themselves in.”
Al-Talawy himself is looking to leave Homs, which has endured a three-year siege, and said he cannot “waste another five years of my life.”
“Only jihadists will be in abundance,” he added.
Ghanoum, the volunteer in Saraqib, has no plans to leave her town, however, and like the rebels there, is unfazed by the threat of a ground operation.
“It will mean more weapons” to capture and keep up the fight, she said.