Syrian rebels have retaken the town of Morek in the Hama province.
The previous post in our Putin in Syria column can be found here.
We’ve known a simple fact since the start of Russia’s air campaign in Syria — bombing ISIS is simply not a priority. If we take Russia’s word on what locations it has bombed, we see that most of Russia’s bombs are falling in areas where ISIS is simply not present. Then there is the possibility that Russia is overstating its strikes within territory where ISIS exists.
The US State Department told Congress yesterday that 90% of Russia’s airstrikes have not hit ISIS targets. Washington Times reports:
Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Anne Patterson cited the figure in congressional testimony as evidence that the real goal of Russia’s campaign is to prop up Syrian President Bashar Assad, whom the Obama administration has sought the removal of for the past four years.
“Moscow has cynically tried to claim that its strikes are focused on terrorists, but so far, 85 to 90 percent of Syrian strikes have hit the moderate Syrian opposition, and they have killed civilians in the process,” Ms. Patterson said at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Wednesday morning.
“Moscow has yet to stop the Assad regime’s horrific practice of barrel bombing the Syrian people,” she said. “We know that Russia’s primary intent is to preserve the regime.”
Additional analysis of the materials Russia itself publishes provides plenty of evidence that Russia is not concentrating its bombing on ISIS:
US General Philip Breedlove, who stressed that Russia, far from being a
viable partner in world affairs, in fact behaves like an adversary:
In NPR’s interview, Breedlove stresses that the US and Russia have very different goals in Syria:
“We [Russia and the US] are not cooperating. We have developed a safety regime with them to ensure the de-confliction of our aircraft, et cetera, in the sky. But cooperation is not the word.
What I would say is that we have developed the regimens and the procedures to allow us not to come into contact and when we do, how we handle that, how we communicate, how we operate, the things that we do and don’t do to be – so as to not look bellicose.
…We clearly know who we’re attacking. We’re attacking ISIL. As you know, Russia announced when they went in that they were attacking ISIL. But we saw that their rhetoric was not matching their actions. I have seen Russia’s own publicly categorized data on this. One could derive that they’re hitting about 80 percent non-ISIL targets. I actually think the number is higher than that. But the bottom line is that clearly their main effort is not against ISIL. Their main effort is against the moderate opposition. And in effect, that provides a little bit of de-confliction in the area anyway. We are bombing ISIL where ISIL is. And they’re bombing the moderate opposition where the moderate opposition is.
Breedlove also stressed that the only way to understand what Putin is thinking is to watch carefully what he is doing. In this sense, Breelove describes a method similar to what we at The Interpreter use — to study the facts on the ground in places like Ukraine and Syria, rather than speculate about what Putin is thinking based on other models:
I really don’t think anyone truly understands what Mr. Putin is about. And I’m suspect when someone walks up to me and says, Mr. Putin wants this or Mr. Putin wants that. We watch the capabilities and the capacities that he builds in these places. And from those capabilities and capacities, we can deduce what he might want to do. And so we looked at the force he built up when he went into Crimea. We look at the force that he has built up in Syria. And we take a look at that and deduce that he can take the following actions or make the following influence. And that’s how I try to determine where Mr. Putin might be headed.
The entire interview can be read and listened to here:
NPR's Steve Inskeep talks to General Philip Breedlove, the NATO Commander for Europe, about what some are calling its biggest military challenge since the end of the Cold War: How to confront Russia. STEVE INSKEEP, HOST: Let's listen to an American general whose job is to keep an eye on Russia.
“With Russia’s participation, a unified air defense system has been created in Syria which will ensure the protection of all military and strategically-important civilian facilities including the air field in Latakia where the Russian aviation group is based.”
He added that Syria already has modernized Osa, S-125, Pechora-2M, 3RS, S-200 and other air defense systems.
The source added:
“The combination of these weapons will enable the guaranteed defense of a guarded facility not only from air attack but from missiles strikes. This system is built by analogy with Israel’s ‘Iron Dome'”
The source also commented on an interview by Komsomolskaya Pravda today of Lt. Gen. Viktor Bondarev, who announced Russia’s delivery of the anti-aircraft systems to Syria today:
“We have calculated all the possible threats. We have deployed there not only destroyers, fighters, bombers, and helicopters but also anti-aircraft missile systems. Because there may be various force majeure circumstances.”
Earlier there were reports that Syria had acquired 36 Pantsir-S1s, capable of hitting 4 targets simultaneously at 20 km distance and 15 km altitude, and some Buk M2Es, the export model which differs from its predecessor, the Buk M1-2 by having better protection from radioelectronic jamming and new features for highlighting targets and targeting missiles.
The Buk-M2E can ensure simultaneous tracking of up to 24 air targets with ability to attack the 6 most dangerous ones. It has radar highlighting and targeting with an antennae post that can be elevated 21 meters enabling greater effectiveness on striking low-flying targets, says Interfax.
RBC.ru reported that NATO’s Gen. Philip Breedlov had noted the delivery of the anti-aircraft systems and said that these weapons constituted a threat to NATO and he doubted they would be used to fight ISIS.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Russian Su-25s fighter planes have reportedly destroyed a warehouse with anti-tank missile systems housed by Jabhat Al Nusra, Igor Konashenkov, spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry reported, according to TASS and RBC.ru.
The warehouse was located in the town of Ma’arrat al Nouman in the province of Idlib. According to information obtained from the joint information center in Baghdad (established by Russia, Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah), a shipment of anti-tank systems were delivered to this warehouse several days ago.
Russian fighter planes have, according to Konashenkov, bombed ISIS targets including an armor repair shop in Aleppo near the Aleppo International Airport in Al Nayrab, a key regime stronghold. Konashenkov said ISIS had used this shop to repair combat vehicles and tanks and to mount weapons on jeeps and trucks.
Two ISIS checkpoints in Raqqa were also struck by Su-34s, according to Russia, which also claims Russian planes bombed an ISIS base in a gorge in the “Mgar mountains” near Damascus, which we believe refers to Maghar al Mir, west of Damascus near a series of hills and military bases which have been the site of heavy fighting for several years (map). ISIS militants had, according to Russia, used the caves there as an ammunition depot, according to the Russian command center and place to hide their armor.
There are many problems with these claims. ISIS is nowhere in Idlib province, nor do they have any presence in the areas near Damascus, as claimed above. Instead, Western-backed rebel groups have been advancing here since they first received Croation weapons in 2012.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, James Miller
Rebel fighters have retaken the town of Morek in the Hama province despite a month of heavy Russian air strikes in the surrounding area and an abortive regime offensive.
Fighters from Jund al-Aqsa, an Islamist militia affiliated with Jaish al-Fateh, led the capture of the town, which was captured by regime forces in October last year.
Reuters reports that Syrian state media has yet to acknowledge the loss of the town, but videos have now been posted from inside the town showing triumphant rebel fighters and a significant quantity of abandoned regime military hardware, indicating that the army did not conduct an organised retreat.
This video shows burnt-out regime tanks on the outskirts of Morek:
Russian jets have already begun bombing the town in response.
The Syrian Local Coordination Committees (LCC) report that bombers struck the outskirts of Morek this morning.
Blasts can be seen and jet noise heard in these videos, uploaded today:
The news is particularly significant because not only have Russian jets been pounding rebel positions in the surrounding areas for a month, but Russain helicopter gunships have been documented operating over the town.
This means that despite the Syrian Army even having close air support from Russia, they have been unable to hold off the rebel assault.
Just six days ago, rebel fighters retook the village of Sukayk having been driven out by the regime offensive, supported by Russian air strikes.