Rus­sia hit­ting all of As­sad’s op­po­nents: an­a­lysts

The China Post - - COMMENTARY - BY RANA MOUS­SAOUI

Syr­ian rebels who op­pose both the regime and the Is­lamic State group have been hit hard­est by Rus­sian airstrikes, show­ing Moscow’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to de­fend Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad against all en­e­mies, an­a­lysts say.

More than four years into Syria’s dev­as­tat­ing war, Rus­sian war­planes be­gan airstrikes there on Wed­nes­day, say­ing they were tar­get­ing IS ji­hadists and “other ter­ror­ist groups.”

But Western of­fi­cials said they had in­di­ca­tions the Krem­lin was con­cen­trat­ing its at­tacks on anti-As­sad fac­tions in­stead of ji­hadists.

Ex­perts and a key mon­i­tor­ing group say that Moscow’s tar­gets show it in­tends to strike all op­po­si­tion groups op­posed to Damascus — ji­hadist or oth­er­wise — in an ef­fort to save As­sad.

“Moscow has en­tered Syria to hit not just Daesh, but all groups it re­gards as ter­ror­ists, in­clud­ing those sup­ported by the Gulf monar­chies and Tur­key,” said Syria spe­cial­ist Fabrice Balanche, us­ing the Ara­bic acro­nym for the group.

“The first wave of Rus­sian airstrikes seemed to fo­cus on rebel ar­eas that threaten the As­sad regime’s Alaw­ite heart­land, show­ing that Moscow is more fo­cused on seiz­ing the man­tle in Syria’s war than fight­ing ter­ror­ists,” he wrote in a pol­icy brief for the Washington In­sti­tute for Near East Pol­icy.

Bomb­ing to Sup­port As­sad

Over the past two days, Rus­sian strikes have tar­geted ar­eas held by Syria’s al- Qaida af­fil­i­ate al- Nusra Front, pow­er­ful Is­lamist group Ahrar al-Sham, and smaller mod­er­ate groups — some of which have re­ceived di­rect back­ing from the United States and Arab states.

The raids have hit the prov­inces of Idlib in north­west Syria, Latakia on the coast, and Homs and Hama in the cen­ter.

IS is not known to have a pres­ence in any of the tar­geted ar­eas.

Ac­cord­ing to a Syr­ian se­cu­rity source, the Krem­lin “con­sid­ers IS, Nusra, and other rebels all as ter­ror­ist groups,” as does the As­sad regime, the source told AFP.

Over the past four years of war, the Syr­ian regime has taken great pains to paint all of its op­po­nents — even non­vi­o­lent ac­tivists — as “ter­ror­ists.”

An­a­lysts say that in­stead of strik­ing ar­eas where IS is strong­est, like in its bas­tion province of Raqa, the Rus­sian air force has opted to con­cen­trate on ar­eas where the regime is un­der great­est threat.

“Rus­sia’s ob­jec­tive is de­fend­ing the regime. In this con­text, the non­ji­hadist armed op­po­si­tion rep­re­sents the most press­ing threat,” said Peter Har­ling of the In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group think tank.

Although a U.S.-led coali­tion bomb­ing ji­hadists in Syria for more than a year has also struck al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham po­si­tions, the pri­or­ity has re­mained IS.

Ac­cord­ing

to Rami Ab­del Rah- man, head of the Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for hu­man Rights, “the Rus­sians are bomb­ing to sup­port the regime in the prov­inces of Homs, Hama, and Latakia where Alaw­ite ar­eas have been threat­ened or at­tacked.”

The Alaw­ite sect is the off­shoot of Shi­ite Is­lam to which the As­sad clan be­longs.

Trap for the Rus­sians?

Ab­del Rah­man said a ma­jor con­cern for As­sad’s be­lea­guered regime was a key “tri­an­gle” that ran across parts of Homs and Hama and in­cluded Tal­bis­seh and Ras­tan — struck by Rus­sian war­planes on Wed­nes­day.

He said re­cent rebel ad­vances in these ar­eas threat­ened a ma­jor regime sup­ply route north to­wards Aleppo province.

“A few weeks ago, al-Nusra and other rebels used Tal­bis­seh to launch an at­tack on nearby Alaw­ite vil­lages like Far­rakhan,” Ab­del Rah­man told AFP.

Al- Nusra had also threat­ened nearby Chris­tian and Alaw­ite vil­lages, which is why the Rus­sians chose to tar­get Tal­bis­seh, the Ob­ser­va­tory said.

And in north­west Syria, Rus­sians had struck Ja­bal al-Akrad, which rebels seized in 2012 and have used since to fire rock­ets at Latakia air­port and Qar­daha, As­sad’s an­ces­tral home­land.

Moscow also tar­geted po­si­tions in Idlib province, which As­sad’s forces lost ear­lier this year af­ter light­ning of­fen­sives by the Army of Con­quest group.

The Krem­lin’s mil­i­tary in­volve­ment is a bid “to help (the regime) hold on, in hopes that the op­pos­ing party will ac­cept it,” Har­ling told AFP.

But Karim Bi­tar, head of re­search at the In­sti­tute for In­ter­na­tional and Strate­gic Re­la­tions in Paris, said “these strikes fur­ther com­pli­cate the con­flict... and could turn into a real trap for the Rus­sians.”

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