Moscow Determined to Remove Rebel Threat from Highway No. 5 to Damascus
The fog of disinformation descended swiftly on the first Russian air strikes in Syria Wednesday, Sept. 30, when the explosions were still reverberating. It will no doubt continue to confuse the long and bloody conflict still to come in the Syrian war, following Russia’s military intervention.
So whose targets did the Russian air strikes hit – the Islamic State or Syrian rebels? Moscow says the first; Washington the second.
President Vladimir Putin has never prevaricated on one of his primary targets being to prop up and stabilize the shaky regime of Bashar Assad. But on Wednesday, he also said: “If they (Islamists of Russian origin) succeed in Syria, they will return to their home countries, and they will come to Russia too.”
US Defense Secretary Ash Carter responded by predicting enigmatically that Russia’s military moves are “doomed to fail.”
DEBKA Weekly has obtained a list of the exact targets hit by Russian bombers in their first Syrian sortie (see the attached map).
One was Tel Biseh, a village located 10 km north of Homs in the Syrian rebel-held pocket of Rastan. There are no ISIS fighters in this area. Local militias have pledged allegiance to the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, Ahrar es Sham, or remained independent.
Russian air strikes’ mixed targets revealed
Previous issues of DEBKA Weekly reported that both these militias have large components of fighters from Chechnya and the Caucasus. Moscow has sentenced them to annihilation.
The air strikes in the Rastan pocket also had a strategic goal, which was to help the Syrian army and Hizballah wipe it out, in order to defend the important northern town of Homs.
Pushing the 1,500 rebels out of the Waar district on the outskirts of Homs would remove their threat to overrun and cut off sections of the 168-km long Highway No. 5 which links the city to Damascus. Russian war planners believe that this would be a strategic disaster, because the highway also connects Damascus to Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city. The two cities would find themselves marooned on separate islands by the blocked highway link, with Syrian forces too constricted in their movements to defend them.
A second series of Russian air strikes hit Jebel Akrad in the western province of Latakia.
This mountain area is near Salma which Syrian rebels have held since 2012. The fall of Jisr as-Shughour in April 2015 opened a direct connection between Jebel Akrad and the large area occupied by the US-armed rebel Army of Conquest in northwestern Syria. From there, they can threaten the capital of Assad’s Alawite stronghold of Latakia and the Russian bases nearby. Rebels occasionally fire rockets at these locations.
Moscow also acted for Hizballah and Shiite interests
It is necessary to expel the rebels occupying this part of Syria in order to secure the northern Alawite stronghold and shield the present and future Russian military bases located there on the shore of the eastern Mediterranean.
The third Russian raid was a mostly symbolic strike against ISIS forces located at a point east of the Ismaili minority’s city of Al Salamiyeh and Ghab Valley in the Hama Province.
It is important to note that Moscow coordinated its air strikes – not only with the Syrian army, but also with Hizballah – and therefore, Iran. Their interests lie in air support for the Shiite militias fighting around Homs, shielding the Shiite villages in this vicinity and distancing adversaries from Hizballah’s stronghold in the Lebanese Beqaa valley.
This week, it became clear to all the forces fighting the Assad regime including ISIS that Russia, Iran and the Damascus government were now seriously on the warpath against them.