Russian warplanes pounded opposition-held areas of Syria on Thursday, according to official Russian and Syrian accounts, the second day of a large-scale air campaign against what Moscow said were Islamic State targets.
The Syrian state news agency quoted a Russian Defense Ministry report saying Russian air units had conducted four strikes on Islamic State positions in the provinces of Homs, Idlib and Hama.
Thursday’s attacks came a day after Russia unleashed 20 airstrikes on eight Islamic State positions Wednesday, the Russian Defense Ministry said, as part of Moscow’s effort to bolster the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and defeat Islamic militancy. Those attacks were Russia’s first reported air assaults inside Syria.
Despite Russian assertions its planes were solely targeting Islamic State positions, accounts from the opposition and others indicated that the Russians were attacking other rebel factions.
Among the groups targeted, according to opposition activists and others, were Al Qaeda-linked rebels and insurgents fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, a loosely affiliated confederation that has received aid from the United States, Persian Gulf nations and Turkey.
It was unclear if any of the areas struck in the two days were strongholds of Islamic State, the Al Qaeda breakaway faction that controls large swaths of Syria and neighboring Iraq.
For more than a year, a U.S.-led aerial coalition has been targeting Islamic State strongholds. The group is concentrated in northern and eastern areas of Syria, though it also has a substantial presence elsewhere, including the provinces of Homs and Aleppo. In May, Islamic State fighters overran the historic city of Palmyra, in eastern Homs province.
Islamic State has also clashed periodically with other rebel factions, including the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. But the two groups have sometimes worked in concert, such as in operations near the Lebanese border against the Syrian military and militiamen of Hezbollah, the Lebanese organization that is supporting Assad’s forces.
The areas targeted by the Russian jets appear key to Damascus’ plan to maintain hold of Syria’s heavily populated western and central core areas, including much of the provinces of Damascus, Homs, Latakia and Hama. Much of the Syrian population still resides in this central area under government control.
Al Manar, Hezbollah’s news channel, reported that Thursday’s raids had struck the headquarters of the Army of Conquest, an opposition alliance, in the northwest towns of Jisr Al-Shuhgour and Jabal Al-Zawiyah, as well as weapons depots in the village of Hawash.
The Army of Conquest, a loose coalition of Islamist rebels that includes Nusra Front and the hard-line group Ahrar Al-Sham, has risen to become one of the Assad government’s most powerful adversaries. In March, the group’s forces swept through much of northwestern Idlib province, advancing toward the strategic Ghab Plains and threatening the government stronghold province of Latakia.
The Army of Conquest reportedly receives aid from Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Turkish and Saudi leaders have called on Assad to step down from office.
Opposition representatives confirmed the attack on Jisr al-Shughour, a key strategic area in northwestern Syria.
“The raid targeted the Omar bin Al-Khattab mosque … which led to six injuries,” Omar Sy, the nom de guerre of an opposition activist in Jisr Al-Shughour, said via Facebook. “There was the sound of an explosion without seeing the plane dive as it usually does,” he continued, saying the raid occurred about 11:40 a.m.
The casualty toll in the latest round of attacks was not immediately clear. Opposition activists said dozens of civilians were killed in Thursday’s Russian raids. Russian officials said that the attacks avoided civilian areas, an assertion disputed by rebels on the ground.
“Most of the targets they have attacked are not military, and instead they have taken out civilian buildings,” said Abu Yazeed al-Taftanaz, Ahrar al-Sham’s spokesman, who uses a nickname for security reasons, like many opposition representatives.
Also on Thursday, opposition members said Russian warplanes bombed the headquarters of Ahrar Al-Sham in the rebel-held town of Kafranbel in Idlib province.
The town became known for posters carried by residents’ denouncing what they viewed as a lack of Western support for their fight against the Syrian government. A few days ago, before the start of Moscow’s air campaign, residents in Kafranabel held up a banner declaring: Kafranbel attacks the spectacle of the U.S. standing back while Russia destroys Syria.
For a second day, opposition groups reported, Russian strikes also hit the rebel bastion of Talbiseh, eight miles north of the central city of Homs, as well as the town of Lataamneh, situated 24 miles northwest of Hama city.
Al-Mayadeen, a Lebanese television station that is generally supportive of the Syrian government, reported Russia would deploy special forces as well as paratroopers to “protect Russian installations in Syria,” as well as bring two frigates to Russia’s Mediterranean naval base in the city of Tartus. Russian forces also reportedly have been utilizing an expanded air base in the coastal province of Latakia.
Syria’s state news agency reported Thursday that Russian naval forces “will take part in the Russian air operation against terrorist organizations in Syria to protect the Russian military facilities in Tartus and Latakia.”