Russian jets carried out their first strikes in Syria’s civil war on Wednesday. But rather than target the fanatics of the self-declared Islamic State, they bombed rebels on the edge of President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite homeland in the northwest of the country.
The Institute for the Study of War, Western-backed rebels and American officials all disputed Russia’s claim that its strikes had hit Islamic State positions.
Instead, the jets attacked rebels to the northeast of Latakia, the largest city in the coastal region that is also the main recruiting ground for Assad’s praetorian guard units.
The Syrian army was forced to withdraw last month from the Ghab plain that borders on the Nusayriyah Mountains which, in turn, separate the Latakia region from the rest of the country. The withdrawal left Assad’s homeland exposed.
A month earlier, the Syrian leader had admitted that his army faced a manpower shortage and needed to give up some areas in order to defend others of greater significance.
Russian aircraft also attacked rebels to the north of Hama and to the north of Homs on Wednesday. Both cities are now controlled by the regime but have seen heavy fighting in the last four years.
Russia recently expanded its military presence in what is its only Middle Eastern client state. Russian artillery, tanks and troops were deployed in addition to some two dozen aircraft. All were stationed in the Latakia region.
Russia also maintains a naval resupply facility at Tartus, south of Latakia.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has censured the West for seeking Assad’s ouster when he is fighting an Islamist insurgency. But the most fanatical of Syria’s Islamist groups, the Islamic State, has seldom engaged with Syrian loyalists on the battlefield. It controls much of the east of Syria as well as parts of western Iraq across the border.