Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1265, (8 - 14 October 2015)
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1265, (8 - 14 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Moscow’s misguided gamble

Russian planes carrying out air strikes in Syria may have killed more civilians and Free Syrian Army fighters than terrorists, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

No one knows exactly what the Russians are up to in Syria, but so far it appears to be more disruptive than helpful. On the last day of September, Russia waged its first military strikes in Syria, claiming that its main targets are the Islamic State (IS) group and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front.

In the days that followed, Russian planes taking off from Latakia carried out more sorties, but these seemed to hit either the anti-regime Free Syrian Army (FSA) or civilians. Apparently pleased with its handiwork, Moscow promised to pursue its mission for a few more months.

Meanwhile, the official Russian and Syrian statements have been ecstatic, claiming that the Russians are pulverising “terrorist strongholds” in various parts of Syria and inflicting heavy losses on “terrorists.”

But apart from eyewitness reports that run contrary to these statements, there have been few clues as to what the Russians are really trying to do. Except in a very few cases, the Russians seem to have spared IS and Al-Nusra Front positions, focusing instead on the FSA and random civilian targets.

So far, Russian commanders have offered no coordinates for their targets, have not explained their plan of action, and have not provided detailed information on the outcomes of their operations.

Some of the areas the Russians have bombed have no military presence, either by pro-regime or anti-regime forces. And more than half of the victims are said to be civilians.

In a strike on the village of Talbisa, just north of Homs, the victims were all civilians.

In the village of Ihsem, 11 civilians, including nine children from one family, were killed, along with two civil defence personnel. Russian planes also reportedly dropped cluster bombs on civilians in the village of Aqrab near Homs.

Four hospitals have been hit by the Russians so far, one of which is run by the international NGO Doctors without Borders. In farmland bordering Latakia, Russian planes bombed FSA headquarters before swerving northwards to strafe FSA-held positions near the Turkish border, in an area that refugees often use as a safe haven.

In locations near Homs and Raqqa, the Russians also bombed several extremist outfits affiliated with IS and Al-Nusra Front, but the exact outcome of the raids is far from clear.

Moscow, which has yet to offer details of its operations, has claimed that it has successfully “degraded the material and technical capabilities of terrorists in Syria,” but local activists and international observers contest that claim.

According to locals, most of the targets the Russians have bombed have been as far as 60 km away from IS-held positions. Only in one or two cases have the Russians seemed to have shelled areas controlled by IS.

Rami Abdel-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an NGO, believes that the Russians are saying one thing and doing another. “It is clear that the Russians are not trying to eradicate IS,” he said. “The overwhelming majority of the areas bombed so far are held by [anti-regime] factions that believe in democracy.”

Abdel-Rahman conceded that the Russians had killed 12 IS fighters in a raid on Raqqa, however.

According to Abdel-Rahman, the Russian operations may undermine the prospects for a future peace in Syria, and perhaps even strengthen the hand of the fanatics. “IS, which Russia claims to be going after, is in fact making gains in Deir Al-Zur,” he added.

UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said this week that most of the Russian strikes had targeted anti-regime fighters or civilians, with only one out of 20 Russian raids striking at IS.

US President Barack Obama has also voiced scepticism of Russian intentions, saying that the Russians have been “indiscriminate” and have played into IS hands. FSA legal adviser Osama Abu Zeid has been more critical, saying that the Russians are not going after IS but after the FSA.

“The Russian shelling proves two things,” he said. “One is that the FSA is a major threat to the regime led by Bashar Al-Assad, which is why the Russian air force is going after it. The other is that Russia wants to destroy the revolution and save Al-Assad.”

With the Russian game plan shrouded in secrecy, there have only been guesses as to why Russian forces have been going after the wrong targets in Syria. One explanation is that they have been relying on skewed intelligence given to them by the Al-Assad regime. Another is that their weaponry and intelligence satellites are so poor that targets are often missed.

But the simplest explanation, and the one favoured by most locals, especially anti-regime forces, is that Moscow is fighting Al-Assad’s battles for him.

The current pattern of Russian intervention can only escalate the conflict, doubling its horrific human cost, such observers say. IS is not going to be “degraded” by raids that seem mostly to ignore it, and the regime is going to be emboldened to commit further atrocities. Also, the risk of confrontation with the US-led coalition cannot be ruled out.

Many anti-regime outfits across the ideological spectrum are not solidly anti-Russian, even as many opposition members have declared the Russians to be an invading force and have pledged to fight against them. Those who were taking part in the peace initiatives have now withdrawn from all talks.

The Russian intervention may turn out to be bad news for Moscow, and have even graver consequences for most Syrians.

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