Moscow’s target is Syrian opposition, Washington’s target is Islamic state

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Reading Time: 5 minutes


On 11 December, on the web-site of the Georgian edition of Russian news agency “Sputnik” was published a material with the statement by official representative of the Russian foreign ministry, claiming that activities of the US-led coalition in Syria against Islamic State are only an imitation of fight against terrorism, while position of the US is politicized.

Previously such accusation had been voiced by a representative of the Russian Ministry of Defense Igor Konashenkov, who said,that “American air force has been conducting air strikes for about a year, but terrorist groups have rarely been their target”.

Meanwhile, US State Department speaker John Kirby also had accusations against Russia. In his statement on 7 October he presented statistics: “90% of Russian air strikes in Syria were directed not against Islamic State or Al Qaeda, but mostly against opposition groups who wish for better future for Syria and do not want for the Assad regime to stay in power”.

Military conflict between government and opposition forces in Syria started in march 2011. After the government’s violent attacks against anti-government rallies United States, Britain, Canada, Poland, Spain, Turkey, Belgium, Tunis and Libya cut diplomatic ties with the Assad government. Washington also started to support opposition forces by sending them light weapons. Islamic State appeared in the Syrian conflict in August 2011. Prior to that Sunni Islamists in Iraq fought against the Western coalition and represented Iraqi outfit of Al Qaeda. In 2006 their leader Abu Omar Al Baghdadi was proclaimed emir and the organization’s name was changed to the Islamic State of Iraq. In January 2012 Al Qaeda organization Jabhat al-Nusra made its appearance in Syria. In June 2014, since the Islamists were fighting in both Iraq and Syria, the name of Islamic State of Iraq was changed and was called Islamic State of Iraq and Sham [Levant].Al Baghdadi was proclaimed caliph. In 2014 it became known what kind of crimes the Islamists were committing after their military successes. Al Baghdadi’s militants themselves were disseminating footage showing violence against Christians, Shia Muslims, Kurds. Torture, sexual violence, executions using medieval methods: decapitation, burial alive, drowning – became trademark of the Islamic State. Besides, ancient city of Palmira and numerous historical monuments in it were destroyed by the IS militants. Besides violence on the territory under its control, Islamic State also commits terrorist acts. The best known is the terrorist act in Paris in November 2015, with more than 100 people dying as a result.

US policy changed after appearance of Islamic State in Syria. In September 2014 US launched air strikes in Syria. The air strikes were mostly directed against Islamic State. The Muslim coalition under the leadership of Saudi Arabia is also acting against IS. After the Paris attacks of November 2015 French air force also conducted air strikes. Their target was de facto capital of IS – Ar Raqqah. From September 2014 to 7 January 2015 French air force conducted 45 missions.

Russia engaged in Syrian war on 30September 2015, when Duma of the Russuan Federation approved Vladimir Putin’s request for launching air strikes in Syria. According to President Putin, Russian involvement in the conflict pursued preventive aims, to “fight against terrorists and militant groups, before they come to our homes”. Russian navy ships are located in Tartus (material and technical Base 720), while Russian air forces active in Syria are based in Latakia. As of early October positions of opposing forces in Syria are as follows:



It is clear from the picture which territories are controlled by the Kurdish army, Islamic State, opposition to Assad and Syrian government forces. Some of the first Russian air strikes were conducted against the opposition.

There is noticeable difference between targets of American and Russian air strikes. Both claim that the target of their air strikes are terrorist groups, but the actual target of the Russian air strikes often are not the terrorist groups, but Syrian opposition. International organization The Carter Center, collects and publishes data about situation in Syria on a regular basis. According to their report, in October 2015 (the report covers data as of 30 October 2015), Russia was actively conducting air strikes against various positions in Syria and consistently claiming that they targeted Islamic State, terrorists or forces connected to them.

Despite this, about 85% of the Russian air strikes did not target IS. According to the data of The Carter Center, the most active fighting in October was in Hama, Idlib and northern Latakia provinces. These are the opposition’s main front lines. By the beginning of the month, 90% of Russian air strikes were directed against these areas. By late October the number of Russian air strikes in this area decreased. 

On this map published by New York Times red color shows the territory under IS control, while yellow – the territory under control of Syrian rebels. It is clear that Russian air strikes are most often directed against not Islamic State, but areas under the opposition’s control. 


According to a 29 October article in New York Times, operations of Syrian government forces on the ground are conducted in coordination with the Russian air strikes and are focused on the areas that had been taken over by the opposition.

Washington Post also writes about coordinated actions of Assad’s forces and Russia, elaborating that on 7 October Russian Caspian fleet conducted complex missile strikes against Syrian rebels.

On 30 September Russian Ministry of Defense published video of Russian air strikes on its website and claimed that the first wave of the strikes targeted only Islamic State, which controls large part of Syrian territory and fights against both Assad regime and Syrian rebels. The next day, during a press conference at UN, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russian air strikes were aimed at the same targets as those of the US and added that “if a group looks, acts and fights like terrorists, then they are terrorists”.

Islamic state controls parts of eastern Syria and northern Iraq. Thus, Russian strikes directed against IS had to be in this area. Despite this, most of Russian air strikes targeted northwest of Syria were the opposition forces are located, which rises legitimate suspicion that the true objective of the Russian air strikes is to keep Assad in power.

According to Amnesty International, during the fall of 2015, 200 civilians were killed as a result of the Russian air strikes. One of the strikes occurred on 15 October, killing 46 civilians, including 32 children and 11 women. They had found shelter in an administrative building in the town of Al-Gantu. According to 16 December data of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, during the last 2 weeks, as a result of air strikes by Russia and Assad regime, 353 civilians were killed, while about 1000 were wounded. There were 94 children and 60 women among the killed. The air strikes left many people without homes and other property.

As has been noted, Syrian civil war is complex and interests of opposing forces are not always easy to discern.The same issues exist in relation to international forces as well. Despite this, official positions of USA and Russia were relatively clear. After civil war started in Syria, Washington launched support to the Syrian opposition and cut ties with the Assad regime. Meanwhile, Moscow supported the Assad government. In late September 2015, when Russia became directly involved in the Syrian war, Assad, who had to fight both the opposition and Islamic State, had seemingly spent all his resources and continuation of his war effort became questionable. But, as a result of the Russian intervention Syrian opposition had to retreat from certain positions on the front line. On the basis of these facts, it seems that Moscow’s interest is to keep Assad in power, and to achieve this objective it is bombing the opposition more than Islamic State. The reason is that on the key front lines Assad’s forces fight against the opposition, which therefore represents more urgent threat to his regime.

Prepared on the basis of materials from The New York Times,The Carter Center, The Washington Post, Amnesty International and Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.


Violation: Disinformation
Country: Russia, Syria, USA

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