Putin in Syria: Russian Airstrikes Begin, But ISIS Is Not Primary Target

September 30, 2015
Su-34. Archive photo. Vladimir Zinin/TASS

LIVE UPDATES: Today Russia launched airstrikes against multiple targets in Syria, but while it’s clear that non-ISIS rebels and possibly civilians have been killed, it’s unclear whether ISIS was even a target at all.

The previous post in our Putin in Syria column can be found here.

Is ISIS In Homs and Hama? We Ask The Institute for the Study of War

The Institute for the Study of War has been a highly reliable source as they meticulously study the state of battlefields in places like Syria. We asked them some questions about today’s airstrikes, and received a reply from ISW’s Genevieve Casagrande:

The Interpreter: Which rebel groups control the areas which were hit today in Homs?

ISW: The groups that control the Talbisa-Rastan rebel pocket north of Homs are: al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham (HASI), and other FSA-affiliated rebel brigades. Unfortunately, we don’t have fidelity on what groups exactly were impacted by the airstrikes today.

Interpreter: Does ISIS have a presence in Homs? Your latest map says no, but some people are pushing back on that because a Daily Mail article published in August showed ISIS reportedly throwing a gay man off a roof in Homs.

ISW:  There is ISIS in Homs Province, not in Homs City which is regime-held (with the exception of one neighborhood). The ISIS presence in Homs is primarily in the eastern countryside. For instance, Palmyra (Tadmur) is in Homs Province.

The Daily Mail article is likely referring to an event that happened in one of the ISIS-held villages in the eastern countryside of the province. There are, however, ISIS ‘sympathetic’ elements (i.e. similar in ideology but not officially ISIS) in rebel-held in the areas of Homs and Hama provinces that were hit today with airstrikes. These groups are minimal and are usually rooted out by other rebel brigades in the area. 

Interpreter:  Any idea which rebel unit was hit today in Al Lataminah, Hama province? The “FSA” commander told Reuters that his unit was hit, and he had recently received anti-tank missiles from a “foreign power.” Any idea what, specifically, they are referencing?

ISW: Tajama’a al-Izza was hit in Al Lataminah. They are an FSA-affiliated TOW anti-tank missile recipient that is active in the provinces of Hama, Idlib, and Aleppo. The TOW missile recipients active in northern Syria are believed to receive these anti-tank missiles from the Turkish Military Operations Command (MOC).

Interpreter:  It looks like a member of Tahrir Homs was killed today. Do you know anything about this man or the unit? Do you know the group’s ideological leanings?

ISW: Yes, the airstrikes killed Lyad al-Deek of Tahrir Homs today. Harakat Tahrir Homs is technically a Free Syrian Army affiliate, however in 2015 the once “moderate” Free Syrian Army is largely nominal and is not a good indicator of a rebel group’s ideological leanings. Tahrir Homs, like a lot of the battle hardened opposition remaining in Homs, is an Islamist brigade that is a military ally of Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. The relationship between Nusra and Tahrir Homs with regards to governance was thought of as “uneasy” when Nusra first started to assert itself (and it’s strict version of Shari’a) in Homs, however they have likely grown closer as time has gone on and probably are currently participating in joint rebel governance structures together.

Read more on today’s bombings on ISW’s blog:

James Miller
UPDATED: Video Posted By Russian Deputy Prime Minister Shows Military Training Exercise

UPDATE: Original post is below, but as is noted at the end, this video was not taken in Syria.

Deputy Prime Minister of Russia Dmitry Rogozin has posted this video to his Facebook page which appears to show a joint attack of helicopters and Russian jets in Syria today.

His message: “Let’s wish our guys successes and victory!”

Note that this video does not appear to have been released first on Youtube, nor does the cameraman speak. Does that mean this video was filmed by a Russian soldier?

Also, it’s unclear whether the helicopters in this video are Syrian regime or Russian, but one thing is interesting — we have not yet seen reports of helicopters being used in Hama province. We have, however, seen reports of helicopters being used in Homs — including in Talbiseh, one of the targets of Russian airstrikes.  If this is Homs, not Hama, that makes the video even more interesting, since the Russian Foreign Ministry is denying that Russia attacked Homs at all.


Rogozin’s message seemed to suggest that this was taken today in Syria, but it is in fact old video from a training exercise.

James Miller, Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Area Hit By Russian Airstrikes In Homs Have Been Under Siege By Assad Forces For More Than a Year
Alexander Hiniker, a Syria watcher with the United Nations, shares this analysis from the Syrian Institute:

Reports from Syrian sources suggest that the targeted strikes hit four towns in northern Homs governorate: Talbiseh, Zafaraneh, Al-Rastan, and Al-Makaramah. All of these towns are within an area of northern Homs that has been besieged by pro-regime forces for more than a year. There were a reported 36 casualties so far, including a mixture of civilians (women, children, and elderly), and rebels, but this number is expected to rise due to the high number of injured victims yet to be treated.

Again, there are no reports that any ISIS fighters are among the dead, and civilians and rebels interviewed by multiple news agencies deny the presence of ISIS in this area of Homs.

But now we see Russia’s ulterior motive. Having covered the rise of the Syrian uprising and the first half of this war in great detail, I can attest to the fact that the areas of northern Homs have always defied Assad. These towns hosted some of the largest protests early in the peaceful uprising, and effectively militarily resisted Assad until the intervention of Hezbollah militants in 2013. Still, despite the fact that the Syrian regime controls the majority of Homs city to the south, these areas remain in rebel hands.

Once again, to understand Russia’s motivations in Syria it is likely best to look at the battlefield realities than anywhere else.

James Miller

The Aviationist Says Official Russian Video Shows Russian Aircraft Missed Their Target In Syria

We’ve been writing that ISIS does not appear to have been the intended target for today’s airstrikes, as Russia claims. But The Aviationist reports that according to official video released by the Russian Ministry of Defense, the Russian aircraft actually even missed their intended target:

Although we are unable to ID the weapons used against these targets it looks like that either the targeting pod was aiming somewhere else or the attack missed its target: the first part of the footage (most probably filmed from a targeting pod or maybe a drone) shows shrapnels from a bomb possibly exploded south of the target; the second part shows the same target and other shrapnels, but you can also clearly see the blast of a bomb at the bottom of the scene; the third one shows bombs (2 or 3) seemigly missing their target by several meters.

This analysis appears to have been seconded by Estonia’s Mission to NATO which tweeted out the article:

So far it appears that Russia did not attempt to conduct highly-accurate strikes against targets in Homs where at least 36 people, perhaps all of which were civilians, have been killed. But in Hama province, where a rebel unit was targeted, it appears Russia just missed its mark. Neither development adds credibility to Kremlin statements which claim that Russia will be conducted highly-accurate strikes against the Islamic State.

James Miller

Independent Russian News Site Meduza Interviews Homs Resident Who Says Russian Planes Struck Civilian Areas

While the Russian state media has been giving the official perspective on Russia’s air strikes in Syria today, some opposition and independent news sites are looking beyond the official rhetoric.

Most of the critical social media commentary has revolved around the point that Russia seems to have “missed” its target and hit not ISIS, but the opposition forces fighting Assad.

There’s also been concern about the rubber-stamp decision from the parliament made in secret, and civilians killed in strikes that do not appear to have been on ISIS-controlled territory:

Translation: The review by the Federation Council of the issue of sending our troops abroad in closed sessions looks unconstitutional. Or are only their grandsons going?

Translation: @navalny Why is the country silent? People, in your name, decisions are being made about the use of Russian forces in a war in other countries – war.

Translation: “The strike was made on residential quarters”; resident of suburb of Homs tells Meduza about the air strikes.

Meduza, an independent Russian-language news site made up of exiles from
Russia based in Riga has published an interview with a resident of Homs
who says Russian air strikes hit civilians areas.

The Interpreter has translated the interview:

the Russian Defense Ministry claims it has made “surgical strikes” only
on areas that are ISIS strongholds, multiple sources including The New
York Times and The Independent as well as The Interpreter have been
reporting throughout the day that the areas struck are those of
opposition to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, not ISIS.

Reports indicate that as many as 36 civilians have been killed in Homs.

A resident of Homs named Talbisi Firas al-Said spoke to Daniil Turovsky, Meduza’s special correspondent, on what he saw:

Turovsky: Where are you now?

: I’m in the village of Talbiseh, that is a suburb of Homs. I live here.

Turovsky: What did you see today?

This morning two plans flew over our city. They released eight rockets.
These strikes were made on civilian quarters of the city. As a result
of the strikes, 16 civilians were killed. Three of them were children,
two were women.

I cannot be completely sure that the strikes on
us were made by Russian planes but I can say the following. I and others
believe that these were Russian planes, because it was all different
than it is usually. The aftermath and the destruction after the rockets
is horrible. Those who managed to see these planes say they had never
seen those kinds before. These are new planes, not the usual Syrian

Turovsky: What can you say about the consequences of the
strikes? Were homes destroyed? You say children were killed — were
there strikes on a school?

Said: Some buildings were totally
destroyed. No, there were no strikes against schools, the air strikes
were against residential buildings.

Turovsky: Did you go to the hospital? What types of wounds did those killed and injured have?

Yes, I went to the hospital. but I must say that this is not a building
at all, just a hospital out in the middle of the field. Of course,
there are not enough doctors here when such strikes are made, and when
16 people were killed and there are numerous people wounded. I cannot
say the precise number of those injured, but there were a lot. The
majority of them were seriously wounded. I saw several people who had
lost their limbs.

Turovsky: What do you think about the fact that Russia began fighting against the Islamic State in Syria?

For now I only see that the first strike was made on residential
quarters of the city in which there is no ISIS. The city of Talbiseh, just
like Homs is not controlled by them. Here there are civilian residents
and the FSA (Free Syrian Army, an armed opposition group fighting
government forces–Meduza
). It seems this is all being done in order to
support Bashar al-Assad. But we are simple residents, we are not

: So you can say that both Homs and Talbiseh are controlled by the opposition?


Yes, that’s so. But not all the territories are controlled by the FSA.
The center of the city of Homs is controlled by government forces.

Some of the neighboring villages are controlled by the Al Nursa Front
(a division of Al Qaeda in Syria–Meduza). Could you have mixed them up?

Said: I can only say that Talbiseh is not controlled by any terrorists.

After this interview was published, the Russian Foreign Ministry said
information about civilian casualties due to the Russia air strikes was
“a [disinformation] plant.”

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Russian Defense Ministry Posts Video of Syrian Air Strikes; Position Geolocated by Russian Blogger

The Russian Defense Ministry has posted a video showing the first strikes by Russian military aircraft on positions in Syria claimed to be strongholds of ISIS.

The Interpreter
has a translation:

Today the Russian aviation group deployed at the Syrian Hmeimim air
field has delivered the first surgical strikes on targets of the
international terrorist organization ISIS.

Assault planes outfited with modern battle systems struck eight targets.

are depots with weapons and ammunition, fuel and lubricants, combat
vehicles, control centers, communication hubs, and means of transport
for ISIS fighters.

All of the targets were degraded.

targets as the militants command center and headquarters for directing
terrorist formations in the mountains have been completely destroyed.

the present time the planes are undergoing technical maintenance and
preparation for flights in accordance with the military assignment.

The Russian Defense Ministry notice didn’t identify the locations of the targets.

Russian blogger Ruslan Leviev, who has been active in covering both the war in Ukraine and Russia’s presence in Syria, posted a notice that he had geolocated the scenes from the Defense Ministry’s video in Al Lataminah here on Google maps.

Translation: RF Defense Ministry Video: aviation bombed Al-Lataminah, north of Hama. ISIS is not there.

Translation: On the left is a screenshot from the video published by the RF Defense Ministry; on the right is a screensoht from Google Maps.

Translation: Once again for clarity.

The map is labelled on the left with “Russian Defense Ministry Sites of Bombing” and on the left with “ISIS Positions.”

Translation: Rose = Assad’s territory; green = the opposition; gray – ISIL. The red boxes show where Russians bombed today.

The territory of ISIS may be overstated in the depiction on this map but the map corresponds to the reports of a number of sources that ISIS was not struck.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Russia Denies Strikes on Homs and Says Reports of Civilian Casualties are “Information War”; UN Expresses Concern About Civilians Killed
RIA Novosti reported (at 20:35 Moscow time) on remarks made by Stephane Dujarric, spokesperson for the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, at the noon briefing at UN headquarters in New York (in reverse translation by The Interpreter):

UN Secretary General has been briefed that Russia is conducting air
strikes on the city of Homs and possibly other places in Syria. Our understanding is that this was a request of the Syrian government.
According to preliminary reports, up to 33 civilians may have become
victims of the attack in the area of Homs.”

Dujarric reiterated that any strikes made in Syria must strictly abide
by humanitarian law and all precautions should be made to protect

RIA Novosti said Dujarric did not specify where the reports had come from. The Interpreter earlier reported multiple confirmations of air strikes in Hama, Homs and Latakia from Al Arabiya and other sources which matched reports from the US government as well as activists on the ground in Syria.

These reports indicated that in Homs alone, 36 civilians were killed.

Dujarric’s comment is not in the English summary record of today’s briefing but may have come in answer to a reporter’s query.

RIA Novosti cited Mariya Zakharova, spokesperson for the Russian
Foreign Ministry, who said claims that there were civilian casualties
from today’s air strikes was “part of the information war.” There was no
official confirmation that Russian air strikes were made in the Homs
region, said RIA Novosti. Furthermore, the US also made strikes today on
ISIS positions, it said.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Chechen Leader Ready to Join the Fray in Syria if Called to Fight ISIS, ‘Most Evil Enemy of Islam’
Before Launching Airstrikes, Russia Told US It Had To Clear Syrian Airspace

The Daily Beast reports that a Russian general told the US to remove its airplanes from Syrian airspace one hour before Russia launched its airstrikes today:

The Russian three-star general, who was part of the newly formed intelligence cell, arrived in Baghdad at 9 a.m. local time and informed U.S. officials that Russian strikes would be starting imminently — and that the U.S. should refrain from conducting strikes and move any personnel out.

The only notice the U.S. received about his visit was a phone call one hour earlier.

CBS has confirmed this news:

James Miller
Syrian Rebel Commanders Confirm ISIS Not Present In Areas Russia Is Bombing

Business Insider, citing Reuters, has confirmed a report carried by us early that Syrian rebels are denying the presence of ISIS in the areas where Russia is bombing:

“The northern countryside of Hama has no presence of ISIS at all and is under the control of the Free Syrian Army,” Major Jamil al-Saleh, who defected from the Syrian army in 2012, told Reuters via Skype.

Saleh said his group had been supplied with advanced anti-tank missiles by foreign powers opposed to Assad.

“In the early morning this aircraft conducted air strikes in Latamneh city. One targeted a civilian area, and the other targeted al-Izza,” Saleh said, referring to his group which he said were set up around two years ago and has 1,500 fighters.

This also matches a recent study of the situation in the area by the Institute for the Study of War.

Besides that, videos and reports from Homs suggest that most, or perhaps even all, of those killed today were civilians, many of whom were children.

But the fact that an FSA group which has been supplied anti-tank missiles by a “foreign power” was the target in Hama province is interesting, indeed. Certain groups in this region has indeed received anti-tank missiles from various nations, and those groups have played a critical role in taking territory from the Russian-backed Assad regime.

James Miller

Video Shows Aftermath of Russian Airstrike In Hama Province
Beyond the utter destruction in multiple suburbs of Homs, documented in dozens of videos, we’re also analyzing video coming out of Hama. This video, shared by multiple  opposition sources, reportedly shows a crater, the result of a Russian airstrike, in Al Lataminah, northwest of Hama city (see today’s map). Worrying, however, is the fact that local citizens believe the weapon never exploded, meaning it could go off at some point in the future:
Multiple videos like this one, however, reportedly show smoke rising over the city after explosions:

This video, uploaded by the same man, reportedly shows Russian jets in the sky over Al Lataminah before the explosions:

We are somewhat confident in the videos above, though there is less information coming out of Hama at the moment, likely due to its smaller population and more remote location.

The Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCC) confirms airstrikes against Al Latamiyah and posts this picture. No word yet on casualties:


These reports match details reported in the press. For instance, Al Arabiya reports that according to a source in “Syrian security,” three provinces have been struck by Russian airstrikes today: Hama, Homs, and Latakia, matching information coming out of the US government and activists on the ground in Syria. Al Arabiya also reports that the headquarters for a moderate Free Syrian Army unit in the area was hit:

The Free Syrian Army, a foreign-backed opposition group, said the airstrikes wounded eight of its fighters.

“The northern countryside of Hama has no presence of ISIS at all and is under the control of the Free Syrian Army,” Major Jamil al-Saleh, who defected from the Syrian army in 2012, told Reuters via telephone.

Areas of the Syrian province of Homs struck in Russian air strikes on Wednesday are controlled by an array of rebel groups including several operating under the banner of the “Free Syrian Army,” activists, locals and rebels said.

None of the sources named ISIS as one of the groups operating in the areas hit on Wednesday.

Additionally, a French diplomatic source told Reuters that the Russian strikes appear to target Syrian opposition, not ISIS.

James Miller

World Powers Weighing In On Russian Airstrikes
Dozens Reportedly Killed, Including Children, In Russian Airstrikes On Northern Homs (MAP)
First, there is a clear indication that Russian airstrikes hit various targets across the Homs governate. According to the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, perhaps the most reliable on-the-ground curator of information, 36 people have been killed by Russian airstrikes in Homs alone, which appear to have focused on the northern suburbs of the city including:

– Talbiseh
– Al Ghantoo
– Al Rastan
– Al Zafrana
– Al Mukarramiyah

See these areas on our map:

2015-09-30 14:10:16

We have only confirmed the airstrike in Talbiseh since it was captured
on video. This video was reportedly taken after the airstrike fell:

Another angle, perhaps taken from Al Rastan facing Talbiseh:

The chaotic aftermath:

This area was reportedly hit by one of the airstrikes. It looks like a
civilian, not military, area. Notice the child riding the bike.

Many videos show the bombing around Homs, and many other videos show the dead, all of whom, so far, appear to have been wearing civilian clothing. This is the least graphic video we could find, showing the blood-stained burial wrappings of 7 of the dead. One of the bodies appears to be very small, possibly a child. Several extremely graphic videos, including this one, show children killed in the airstrike. Other videos show multiple injured children.:

Soon we will be analysing the first videos from other locations of Russian airstrikes.

James Miller

Russia’s Su-34s Tracked from Russia to Syria

Russia has been preparing a military operation against ISIS in Syria since early September, and there have been documented sightings of Russian military aircraft, RBC.ru reports.

Yesterday, September 29, Oryx Blog published photos showing Su-34s in the air above Syria. In one photo there are six destroyers following a transport plan that looks like a Tu-154 transport plane. (The Aviationist also covered the Su-34s.)

According to Flightradar24, a Tu-154 from Russia’s Air Force with
board number RA-85155 flew from the city of Nalchik on September 28,
crossed the Caspian Sea, flew through the air space of Iran and Iraq and
then landed in Latakia.

A Tu-154 with the same board number was
earlier assigned to the Russian Defense Ministry’s 223rd flight
detachment which serves visits of high-ranking military commanders. This
information was confirmed at the Defense Ministry during the scandal of
the spring of 2014 when Aleksei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund tracked

The Anti-Corruption Fund reported a flight of a Tu-154 to the
Seychelles Islands during the Russian May holidays, and suspected that
the Defense Ministry was using their plane to go fishing. At that time,
the Defense Ministry said that the flight with the number RA-85155 was
making a commercial flight and that there were no military passengers on
board. The purpose of the flight at that time was not revealed.

later discovered that the 223rd’s planes were in fact used regularly to
ferry Defense Ministery Sergei Shoigu and former defense minister
Anatoly Serdyukov on international trips.

According to
Flightradar24, at least two transport Tu-154s with the numbers RA-85041
and RA-85563 landed in Latakia in late September. Both plans were
painted in the color of the special Rossiya flight detachment which is
used by the 223rd. RA-85041 flew on September 19 from Orenburg to
Baghdad on September 21, according to Flightradar, then from Baghdad to
Teheran, and then on the 22nd from Latakia to Teheran.

Test pilot Magomed Tolboyev, honorary president of MAKS (International
Air and Space Salon) told RBC.ru that airplanes from the 223rd are in
fact used to transport Russia’s high command.

President Vladimir
Putin confirmed on September 28 in his UN speech that a coordinating
structure was being created to fight terrorism in the Middle East to be
joined by a number of countries including the US. Russia proposed that
US and the coalition coordinate with the help of an information center
in Baghdad to coordinate air strikes on ISIS with ground troop
operations in Syria, Sergei Lavrov confirmed to RT.com on September 29.

Syrian port of Latakia is 60 kilometers from Tartus. Since the Soviet
era, the Russian Navy has maintained a technical supply base there. In
September, about 1,700 military advisers from Russia were brought to the
base. The Russian Defense Ministry said they were accompanying the
troops of Bashar al-Assad to fight ISIS.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Reports Indicate Russian Airstrikes In Homs, Hama, and Latakia — Areas Where ISIS Is NOT Present

According to multiple reports,  rebels, not ones affiliated with ISIS, have been the first targets of Russian airstrikes today.

Homs, Homs, and Latakia are regions which stretch from west-central Syria to the northwest. Last night we discussed the fighting on the border of Latakia and Hama (and Idlib province, the rebel stronghold which contains neither ISIS nor any military units from the Syrian regime).

2015-09-30 13:37:22

In yesterday’s update we noted several important things to remember:

1. There is no ISIS in this area (see map below)

2. Russian bases are very close to where non-ISIS rebels have been winning major victories in recent months.

3. There is significant disagreement, dating back months, between some Syrian military commanders and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps officers who are actually calling the shots in this region. One issue — some Syrian officers, despite being loyal to Assad, resent the role that Iran is playing. Some of those officers have recently been executed for not cooperating with their Iranian overseers. Another issue is simply strategy, and bickering about who is to blame.

4. There are now reports that President Bashar al-Assad has deployed the 4th Division, an elite and loyal armored division run by his brother, Maher al-Assad.

Today’s airstrikes appear, then, to directly address these issues.

We will be providing detailed maps and assessments of the Russian airstrikes in moments. Stay tuned.

James Miller