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Syrian Rebels Taken Aback by Russian Airstrikes

The New York Times logo The New York Times 9/30/2015 By ANNE BARNARD

In this image made from video provided by Homs Media Centre, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, smoke rises after airstrikes by military jets in Talbiseh of the Homs province, western Syria, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015. Russian military jets carried out airstrikes in Syria for the first time on Wednesday, targeting what Moscow said were Islamic State positions. U.S. officials and others cast doubt on that claim, saying the Russians appeared to be attacking opposition groups fighting Syrian government forces. © Homs Media Centre via AP In this image made from video provided by Homs Media Centre, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, smoke rises after airstrikes by military jets in Talbiseh of the Homs province, western Syria, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015. Russian military jets carried out airstrikes in Syria for the first time on Wednesday, targeting what Moscow said were Islamic State positions. U.S. officials and others cast doubt on that claim, saying the Russians appeared to be attacking opposition groups fighting Syrian government forces. BEIRUT, Lebanon — “They are the most violent strikes,” says a man filming the grim aftermath of what he asserts was a Russian air attack on the town of Talbiseh, in the Homs Province of Syria. “This is the Russian criminal regime.” The voice then trials off into laments and prayers: “Oh God, oh God, oh God. God is all we need.”

He concludes: “This is what the criminal Russian planes did.”

When Russia declared it would start hitting the Islamic State in Syria, opponents of President Bashar al-Assad were immediately concerned that it would target them as well — insurgents who rebelled long before the Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL, existed in its current form.

But even they were taken aback on Wednesday when Russia’s very first airstrikes in Syria appeared to target areas where the Islamic State has no known presence, including some that have symbolic resonance as strongholds of the early, locally based opposition that sprang up among army defectors.

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If Moscow had been determined to destabilize the situation in Syria, many of Mr. Assad’s opponents say, it would have been hard-pressed to think of a more electrifying and polarizing way.

Among the areas hit was the base of a group that had been supported and supplied by the United States and its allies, said its leader, Jamil Saleh. He said the group’s base had been hit severely in Hama Province, wounding eight of his men. Later on Wednesday, American officials confirmed that some groups supported by the United States had been hit.

“We are on the front lines with Bashar al-Assad’s army,” said Mr. Saleh, whose group has recently posted videos of its fighters using sophisticated American-made TOW missiles to destroy government tanks. “We are moderate Syrian rebels and have no affiliation with ISIS. ISIS is at least 100 kilometers away from where we are.”

On Thursday, the group posted a video that it said showed the attack, first with two Russian fighter jets wheeling overhead, then with a blast so close and powerful that it knocked the camera to the ground.

The strikes provided fodder for the many Syrian opponents of Mr. Assad who believe that all the world’s forces are arrayed against them, and that the United States, after promising aid that never came in sufficient amounts to matter, has abandoned them, effectively allying with Russia, Iran and Mr. Assad.

“Russia is an accomplice in Assad’s crimes today, with approval from both the U.S. and the international community to kill us,” said Khoodair Khusheif, an activist in northern Homs Province. “If these raids continue this way, Russia will kill a larger number of civilians that Bashar did in four years.”

He added, sounding sincerely perplexed: “I do not know how the main ally of Bashar al-Assad has been allowed officially to intervene and kill Syrian people. I really don’t understand how a great country like U.S.A. allows Russia to bomb in Syria.”

Russia’s intervention has already led regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Qatar to increase military support to the rebels. Yet the principal impact, analysts and rebel commanders say, will be to further radicalize elements in the opposition, potentially driving more to join forces with the Islamic State or other radical groups.

Much as American strikes on the Islamic State may have worked as a recruiting tool for the group, so too could Russia’s entry attract even more jihadists with a grudge against Russia from Afghanistan or the Caucasus.

“It appears to the people now that what the Islamic State has said is right, about the West being the enemy of Muslims,” said a Syrian journalist working in rebel areas under the nom de guerre Jalal Zein al-Din. “And that there is no solution but in self-armament and a strong belief in God, which will extend the duration of the Syrian crisis, making the division of Syria as a Plan B easier to achieve.”

Pro-government Syrians, on the other hand, were jubilant and relieved after what they had seen as an overly tepid endorsement of Mr. Assad by Mr. Putin in his United Nations speech on Monday.

State news media reflected that spirit, even publishing news about the attacks under an image of a Russian crest, with its traditional double-headed eagle.

Homs Province sprawls far to the eastern desert, including Palmyra, which the Islamic State controls, and gas fields where the group has advanced, threatening power supplies for much of Syria. But most of the province’s population is concentrated in the west, around Homs city, the provincial capital, and that is where the strikes hit.

Antigovernment activists and insurgents in Homs Province said the airstrikes hit three towns north of Homs city on Wednesday — Rastan and Zaafarani, as well as Talbiseh — that have long been held by rebels fighting Mr. Assad.

Talbiseh is used to bombing; the makeshift hospitals, for example, are all underground after medical facilities have been repeatedly bombed over the years by the government. Yet, Mahmoud Taha, an activist reached in Talbiseh, said the level of fear was new.

The town was paralyzed with terror, he said, as people hid in shelters and orchards. The local authorities called a curfew to keep people off the streets. Mr. Taha said that government helicopters swooped in on the heels of the Russian planes, dropping barrel bombs.

Activists in Talbiseh said that 15 people had been killed there, and that 39 people, including women and children, had been killed in the three towns. Videos posted from the town showed a row of bodies wrapped in bloodstained white shrouds, one of them child-size. One close-up showed the face of a young boy. Videos from the other towns also appeared to show wounded children.

The Syrian American Medical Society, which aids clinics in the area, said 33 people had been killed in the attacks, including three children and a rescue worker.

In nearby Rastan, Tamam, a resident who defected from Air Force intelligence early in the uprising against Mr. Assad, said people had defiantly reopened their shops after the attacks. “Who died, died, and who lived, lived,” he said.

Tamam, who would give only his first name, said Russian planes had carried out four raids on the town.

The strikes, he said, hit less than a half-mile from his house. “The strikes were so accurate, and the sound was like an earthquake,” he said, adding that he had spotted two planes. “The missiles exploded with black smoke and a bad smell.”

There were early indications that Russia could face repercussions from its developing role in Syria. The Army of Islam, an insurgent group with Saudi financing that is strong around Damascus, announced days ago that it was declaring war on Russia — at least wherever it reared its head in Syria.

And one Homs resident, Ahmad Abu Mohammad, wrote in a Facebook message that Russia was “a partner of the Assad gangs,” adding ominously: “Russia is an enemy of the Syrian people and its interests must be targeted.”

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