WASHINGTON – While the United States insists that Russian airstrikes in Syria are targeting “moderate” opposition forces and not ISIS fighters, a Middle East expert claims the targets are jihadists from Russia itself, many of whom have joined various Sunni jihadi groups, including ISIS, according to a new report from Joseph Farah’s G2 Bulletin.
Middle East expert Mairbek Vatchagaev told G2 Bulletin the concern for the Russian government is North Caucasus fighters in Syria returning home to continue waging jihad.
“It is unclear why Russia sat back for so long and allowed the militants in Syria to consolidate,” said Vatchagaev, of the Washington-based think-tank Jamestown Foundation. “Now, they pose a danger not only to the Russian North Caucasus, but also to areas in Central Asia adjacent to Russia.”
Vatchagaev said fighters from Central Asian countries also have started to resettle in Syria “in large numbers.”
“Thus, Russia will try not only to help President (Bashar) al-Assad, but also to kill as many of its own citizens and citizens from states neighboring Russia who are fighting in the Middle East, before they return to their homelands,” he said in an email.
To underscore the concern, Vatchagaev told of four hunters who recently were killed by returning militants from Syria in Dagestan, a predominantly Muslim province in Russia’s North Caucasus.
Vatchagaev’s assessment is at odds with the official U.S. position that Russian airstrikes are targeting more moderate Syrian forces.
“To date, the vast majority of Russian operations in Syria we have seen have not been against ISIL (ISIS), but against other regime opponents,” U.S. Navy Capt. Jeff A. Davis, director of press operations at the Pentagon, told G2Bulletin in an email.
Davis was referring to ongoing Russian airstrikes in the northern part of Syria around cities in the provinces of Homs, Hama and Idlib, which are not part of the ISIS caliphate or where ISIS fighters are located.
However, recent Russian action contradicts the Pentagon’s assessment.
Russia steps up airstrikes
Russian aircraft have stepped up their airstrikes on ISIS positions near Palmyra, the ancient Roman city ISIS recently captured. ISIS has been systematically destroying many of the archeological structures and selling antiquities on the international market.
In addition, Russian fighters bombed ISIS bunkers and training facilities in and around ISIS’ self-declared caliphate capital of al-Raqqa in northeastern Syria.
At the same time, Russia continues its bombing campaign in the provinces of Homs, Hama and Idlib.
Fighters of the Free Syrian Army and other jihadi groups are located in that general area. Many of their fighters either are associated with al-Qaida, including its Khorasan Group, or ISIS.