Russian fighter jets have carried out a new wave of air strikes on opposition-held territories in Syria as Moscow’s effort to back-up the embattled regime of Bashar al Assad enters its second day.
According to a regime source quoted by the Agence France-Presse news agency, the fresh airstrikes targeted the Fatah Army in the Jisr al Shughur and Jabal al Zawiya districts of the northwestern Idlib province.
Air strikes also reportedly hit arms depots belonging to opposition forces in the Hama province, the unnamed source said.
According to a Fatah Army member, the aerial assault on Jisr al Shughur resulted in the flattening of a mosque.
The Fatah Army - coalition of prominent rebel groups including Ahrar al Sham, Failaq al Sham, Jund al Aqsa, from the Ajnad al Sham, and the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front - took control of the northwestern city of Idlib in March. The rebels later moved on to capture the city of Jisr al Shughour, thus securing their control over the Idlib governorate.
However, the Fatah Army has struggled to surpass the Sahl al Ghab plain, which lies south of Jisr al Shughur in Al Suqaylabiyah district of the northwestern governorate of Hama.
The plain currently serves as a vital supply line for the regime and a launching pad for attacks on opposition-held territories. It also stands between the Fatah Army and the coastal Al Ansariyah mountain range in the coastal governorate of Latakia - a stronghold of the regime and Assad’s minority Alawite sect.
Russia has been building up its military presence in Latakia where they have reportedly deployed military experts and aid to assist the Assad regime.
It has also been reported that Russia is expanding its only Mediterranean naval base in Tartus and is building an airstrip in Latakia’s Bassel al Assad airport, making it the biggest foreign mission launched by Moscow since the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
Russian fighter jets began bombing opposition forces in Syria on Wednesday, just hours after lawmakers in the upper house of parliament in Moscow unanimously approved military action in Syria.
Although Russia claims its air strikes are being targeted against the ISIS militant group, the US has raised concerns that Wednesday’s air strikes in the cities of Homs and Hama were aimed at moderate opposition groups fighting against Bashar al Assad’s regime.
US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the air strikes took place where there were probably no ISIS forces and warned Russian intervention would only "backfire" and would be like “pouring gasoline on the fire.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry also said there would be “grave concern” in Washington if it is discovered that the Russian air strikes were not targeting ISIS or the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.
Despite the areas targeted on Wednesday having no significant ISIS presence, the Russian Defence Ministry said a total of 20 “pre-emptive” air strikes were carried out on the outskirts of Homs in the towns of Talbisa, Rastan, Zaafaraniya and Makramiya, destroying eight ISIS positions.
However, other sources have claimed that Russia is indeed targeting opposition groups. Speaking to Western media, Jamil al Saleh, a commander for the US-backed rebel group Tajamaa al Ezza (Dignity Gathering), said his group was targeted in Hama on Wednesday.
“Each strike was 10 rockets, done by four planes and covered by one reconnaissance jet. The first strike hit the Latamneh area and had mostly civilian casualties. The second hit our headquarters near the front. There was heavy damage and eight wounded but none of our fighters were killed,” he said.
“I want the world to know that the Russians appear to be here not to fight ISIS but to help the Assad regime exterminate the Free Syrian Army, destroy the popular revolution, and kill its civilians — all for the sake of strengthening the regime,” he added.
Meanwhile, the Washington-based think tank Institute for the Study of War cited local Syrian sources claiming the air strikes exclusively targeted the opposition forces, including the “headquarters of Free Syrian Army-affiliated, Western-backed TOW anti-tank missile recipient Al Izza."
Syria’s main political opposition leader Khaled Khoja also said Wednesday’s assault killed 36 civilians, including five children.
1/All The targets in today's Russian air raid over Northern #Homs were civilians .36 civilian has been killed in ISIL & Al Qaida free areas.
— خالد خوجة (@Khaledkhoja) September 30, 2015
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, however, dismissed rumors that the air strikes were targeting opposition forces, telling journalists in New York on Thursday that such reports were “unfounded.”
To date, the war in Syria has killed an estimated quarter of a million people with most of the casualties occurring as a result of regime air strikes and barrel bombings of civilian areas. As much as half the country’s population has also been displaced, both internally and externally.