JERUSALEM – Russia’s first airstrikes in Syria have been followed immediately by a series of major Syrian army ground operations targeting rebel positions, including in some areas not controlled by ISIS.
The information furthers reports from U.S. officials that the Russian strikes on Wednesday targeted U.S.-backed rebels in Syrian neighborhoods where the rebels have received CIA arms, funding and training.
Russia has insisted it only targeted ISIS positions. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly that the Russian air forces are working in conjunction with the Syria military to “exclusively” target ISIS.
“Rumors that the targets of these strikes were not [ISIS] positions were groundless,” Lavrov stated.
A Russian Defense Ministry statement said the Russian air force targeted and destroyed eight positions belonging to ISIS on Wednesday. An additional statement on the ministry’s website says “four more ISIS facilities” were targeted late at night.
“Su-24M and Su-25 aircraft performed 8 sorties eliminating the staff of terrorist groupings and an ammunition depot near Idlib as well as a three-level HQ centre near Hamah,” read the statement.
“As a result of pinpoint bomb attack, a plant aimed for preparation of cars for explosion located in the north of Homs is completely destroyed,” the statement read.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian disputed the Russian claims of only targeting ISIS, telling lawmakers in Paris: “Curiously, they didn’t hit Islamic State. I will let you draw a certain number of conclusions yourselves.”
The Wall Street Journal cited U.S. officials saying Russian warplanes hit areas controlled by rebels backed by the CIA.
And the anti-Assad Syrian National Council told Sky News that the Russian strikes killed at least 36 people in the western city of Homs, including five children. The council said none of the areas targeted was controlled by ISIS.
Responding to the report, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman claimed to Sky News that the claims of civilians being killed are part of an “information war … which, it appears, someone prepared well.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry website stated “all the airstrikes of the Russian aviation are coordinated with the command of the Syrian army.”
Syria’s state-run SANA news agency described a massive Syrian military ground operation immediately following the Russian airstrikes. Not all of the Syrian operations as cited by SANA targeted ISIS positions.
Two Lebanese sources told Reuters that hundreds of Iranian troops have arrived in Syria to fight alongside Hezbollah and Syrian forces backed by Russian airstrikes.
“The (Russian) air strikes will in the near future be accompanied by ground advances by the Syrian army and its allies,” one of the sources said, according to Reuters.
“It is possible that the coming land operations will be focused in the Idlib and Hama countryside,” added the source, described as being familiar with the military and political developments.
The Russian airstrikes struck the rebel-held towns of Rastan and Talbisah, north of Homs City, as well as the towns of Al Latamneh and Kafr Zeita in Homs province, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a U.S. think tank based in Washington, D.C.
Following the Russian strikes, a military source told SANA that a “number of terrorists were killed and others were injured, and one of their ammunition stores was destroyed in the continued army operations against dens and positions of Jabhat al-Nusra and other terrorist organizations in the villages of Jibbata al-Khashab and Tranjeh.”
In the northern countryside of the southern Quneitra province, near the Israel-Syria border, Syrian army units destroyed dens and vehicles of Jabhat al-Nusra and other Takfiri organizations, SANA reported.
In Aleppo, Syrian forces targeted what the SANA agency called “terrorists’ hideouts” near the al-Nairab airport and in the villages of al-Ridwaniyeh, Arbid, al-Jabboul, Ain al-Jamajmeh, Tal Istabl, Tal al-Naam and Tal al-Hattabat in the eastern countryside of Aleppo province.
Operations also targeted Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS terrorists near Aleppo’s air force academy and in the neighborhoods of Khan al-Asal and al-Mansoura on the western and southwestern outskirts of Aleppo City, reported SANA.
In Daara, SANA reported rebels were targeted by Syrian ground forces in the Samlin village and the cities of Inkhel and Jassem. And the Syrian agency reported that in Homes, an army unit destroyed an armored vehicle and a cannon belonging to ISIS terrorists.
The Russian military moves in Syria come less than two weeks after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during a visit to Moscow that Israel and Russia had agreed to coordinate military moves in Syria to avoid the possibility of the two countries accidentally trading fire.
While Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow was mostly portrayed as an effort to allay Israeli concerns about Russia’s military build-up in Syria, common threats, such as ISIS, were discussed along with cooperation that could extend beyond just the coordination of military moves is Syria.
Netanyahu’s trip to Moscow generated images of the Israeli leader seated next to Putin in the Russian capital ahead of his visit with Obama in the White House on Nov. 9.