In its first major military operation in the Middle East since 1941, Russia launched airstrikes in Syria on Wednesday night and Thursday morning to hit “terrorist facilities” in Idlib, Hama and Homs.
“Russian air force planes have commenced air operations with surgical strikes against identified [ISIS] ground targets,” said Russian Defense Ministry Spokesman, General Igor Konshenkov on Wednesday.
Moscow asserted the airstrikes were targeting ISIS militant positions in Syria, including a bomb and ammunition factory, but the United States and rebel groups in Syria quickly disputed these claims. US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said that the Russian warplanes were not in areas with ISIS forces.
“The result of this kind of action will probably be to inflame the civil war in Syria,” Carter said, adding that Russia’s actions are like “pouring gasoline on a fire.”
John McCain, head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, also claimed that the airstrikes hit CIA-trained Free Syrian Army recruits.
“I can absolutely confirm to you that there were airstrikes against our Free Syrian Army recruits that have been armed and trained by the CIA,” McCain told CNN.
Many analysts also view Russia’s military involvement in Syria as a way to “prop up” Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, one of Russia’s closest allies in the Middle Eastern region.
The Syrian National Coalition, a coalition of opposition groups, claimed that the airstrikes killed 36 civilians in the central province of Homs, despite the Russian Defense Ministry asserting the airstrikes would avoid populated areas.
Meanwhile, Lebanese sources reported that several Iranian forces arrived in Syria 10 days ago to participate in ground operations, while Iran-backed Hezbollah militants are also preparing to join a major ground offensive in Syria’s north.
The ongoing civil war in Syria is approaching its fifth year and has claimed as many as 330,000 lives, with most of the casualties being civilians. The armed opposition to Assad’s regime primarily consists of the Free Syrian Army, the Islamic Front, and ISIS militants. The Free Syrian Army has captured some territories, primarily in southern Syria; however, ISIS has made much more significant territorial gains, with nine Syrian provinces currently under its control.
Several countries have intervened militarily in Syria in an attempt to quash ISIS militants, including the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.