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Russia - Syria

Russia’s growing involvement in Syria criticised by moderate opposition

Port of Latakia
Port of Latakia Reuters/Marthe Brendefur

Russia says it has employed 50 war planes and bombed Islamic State group targets in Syria. A statement from the foreign ministry says that these included a command centre and weapons depot. But people sympathetic to some elements of the Syrian opposition told RFI that they do not agree with Russia’s new role.

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“We were in touch with people in rural Homs and Hama,” says Walid Saffour, a former ambassador to the UK for the Syrian National Coalition, currently the director of the Syrian Human Rights Committee.

“We identified that all the victims were civilians, among them children and women. And there were no rebels affected by the killing. We believe this chaotic bombardment by the Russian aircraft caused more victims and they complicated the scene in Syria,” he says.

“I believe that it is not to the advantage of any peaceful or political solution in Syria.”

Saffour says the attacks will “enhance extremism and more confrontation on all fronts in Syria. The dark chapter of the involvement or Russians is a disaster for Syria.”

Moscow has denied the allegations. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday dismissed all claims that Russian air strikes had killed civilians in Syria.

He called it "information warfare", but also said that Moscow would look into those reports.

Meanwhile, there was no surprise amongst members of the Syrian opposition that the Russians stepped up their involvement in Syria.

“What happens now is a direct involvement in the Syrian crisis by the Russian troops and by the Russian policy makers,” says Saffour.

“Before, they were against any involvement or intervention. And now they intervene openly and they raid the residential areas in Hama and other places.

“They say that they are targeting Islamic State areas. But there are no Islamic State areas there. They come here to help the regime of Bashar al-Assad, despite the fact that the Syrian people want to remove him and replace him with a democratic regime in Syria,” he says.

Before the attacks, many analysts thought that reports about a Russian build-up was only diplomatic window dressing. “Before Putin’s speech in the UN, the expectations were that it was still a bit of a bluff,” says Pavel Baev, a research director with PRIO, the Peace Research Institute in Oslo.

“But then the bluff was essentially called and Russia felt the need to do something with this very limited deployment, but nevertheless a deployment that can deliver a sort of impact on the civil war in Syria,” he said.

In Moscow itself, popular reactions to Russia’s military engagement in Syria were negative, says Baev.

“There are very clear worries about being engaged in that war,” he says, not in the least because of memories of Russia’s decade-long occupation of Afghanistan that cost the lives of 50,000 Russian soldiers.

“The official line was that ‘airstrikes are not efficient’ and that the US and its partners are not able to make significant damage to the Islamic State group, that you cannot win this war from the air. And now people see that Russia is essentially doing the same sort of operation,” he says.

But he admits the Russian army may be in a better position to pick their targets than the US and its coalition. “Certainly the Russians do not have a lot of electronic intelligence,” he says.

“But their advantage is that they do have very direct contact with the government forces, with the Syrian army. So the supply for targets may not come from satellites or spy planes or other sorts of modern means, but directly from the forces which are engaged in combat operations.

“So for that matter, Russian planes may be more able to deliver some sort of immediate ground support,” he adds.

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