For the second day running, Russian aircraft bombed Syria, striking targets that included U.S.-backed rebel forces, but not apparently positions held by the Islamic State.
Russian officials claimed that the 30 airstrikes had hit areas controlled by the Islamic State and al Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, but the Pentagon said it had no indication that a single Islamic State target was hit.
Despite the bombing of rebels who were trained, equipped and paid under a covert CIA program – one group has been hit six times in the first two days of bombing – U.S. officials said they had no plans to change the administration’s approach to Syria or to take actions to protect the rebels. President Barack Obama has ruled out the use of U.S. ground troops, and on Thursday, his spokesman avoided any show of responsibility to save the U.S.-backed forces.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest warned that Russia’s “indiscriminate” bombing could “drive what otherwise would be moderate elements into the arms of extremists.” But he said no change in the U.S. approach is planned. “At this point, we haven’t seen the kind of change that would prompt a significant, broad reevaluation of our policy,” he said.
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Government officials familiar with the CIA-trained rebels said that the U.S. must decide to assist them within days, or it is likely they will be unable to survive in central Syria, where many have been operating for three years or more. But what steps might be taken were not immediately apparent. The U.S. has ruled out providing the rebels with anti-aircraft weaponry for years and would be even less likely to do so now that the targets would be Russian planes flown by Russian pilots.
The inclusion of U.S.-trained rebels among the targets also was an indication of how much Russia’s military intervention in Syria has altered the balance in the four-year-long war, which has seen the deaths of 250,000 and the dislocation of at least half of Syria’s one-time 24 million population.
And more change seemed in the offing. News reports from Israel and Lebanon said Iran had sent hundreds of Iranian security forces to link up with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia for a ground intervention that would be backed by Russia’s air operations.
Earnest said he could not confirm the reports, but said if true they would be a “rather powerful illustration” of how Russia’s intervention had “worsened the sectarian conflict there” – a reference to the civil wars religious split pitting the country’s minority Alawite sect backed by Shiite Muslim forces against the largely Sunni Muslim forces that comprise not only the anti-Assad moderates but also Nusra and the Islamic State.
In the meantime, however, U.S. officials suggested their biggest immediate concern was find ways to avoid a confrontation between American aircraft bombing Islamic State targets in northern Syria and Russian plans bombing central and northern Syria.
Russia and the U.S. held their first direct military-to-military discussions on how to “de-conflict” their aircraft, conducting a video-conference one day after a Russian general in Baghdad called on the U.S. embassy to give the U.S. only one hour’s notice before the start of bombing Wednesday – a notification scheme that many felt was a snub.
There were other indications that the United States had taken steps to reduce the potential for conflict between U.S. -backed forces and Russia’s.
U.S. aircraft flew only one mission over Syria in the 24 hours since the Russian airstrikes had begun, though Army Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq, told reporters in a briefing from Baghdad that the reduction in U.S. air operations, from an average of about eight, had nothing to do with Russia’s air intervention.
Warren also announced that the U.S. has suspended its failed program to train and equip Syrians to fight the Islamic State and would not attempt to return recently trained fighters to Syria.
It remained difficult to match Russian claims about what targets had been hit with evidence from the ground.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov denied Thursday that Russian airstrikes are targeting the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army or other moderate opposition groups, contending they’re striking the Islamic State and al Qaida, just as the U.S.-led coalition has been doing.
“If the United States-led coalition targets only terrorist groups, then we do the same,” he told a news conference at the United Nations.
“The representatives of the coalition command have always been saying that their targets are ISIL, al Nusra, and other terrorist groups,” he said, using the U.S. government’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State. “This is basically our position as well. We see eye-to-eye with the coalition on this one.”
He said Russia does not consider the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army a terrorist group but thought it should be “part of the political process, like some other armed groups on the ground composed of the Syrian patriotic opposition.”
But Russian actions suggested otherwise. One U.S.-backed group, the Al Izza Brigade, said Russian aircraft bombed its base in Latamneh in Hama province twice on Wednesday and four times on Thursday. Activists claimed that at one point Syrian government forces fired volleys of rockets at the brigade as Russian aircraft bombed it.
The Russian intervention “is intended to exterminate the Free Syrian Army – no, the Syrian people,” Capt. Jameel a-Salih of the Al Izza Brigade told the web publication Syria Today.
In Idlib, the capital of the province of the same name, anti-regime media activists said Russian aircraft targeted the U.S.-backed Sukhur al Jabal brigade while ignoring the base of the Islamist Ahrar al Sham militia less than a half mile away.
At Jish al Shughur, activists also claimed that Russian bombs killed five civilians. One of the most critical targets was the Suqur al Ghab brigade located in the Ghab valley, a critical area where the Syrian government forces have steadily lost ground in recent months.
The reports of civilian casualties and the attacks on Nusra from the Russian attacks recalled the early days of the U.S. bombing of Syria in 2014. Then, local activists complained that the U.S. had targeted the Nusra Front in missile strikes that they said would drive moderates into the arms of extremists. They also said the strikes had killed civilians.
Gutman reported from Istanbul, Clark, from Washington. James Rosen and Jonathan S. Landay contributed from Washington and special correspondent Zakaria Zakaria contributed from Istanbul.