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Russia launches fresh airstrikes in Syria

Russian warplanes bombed rebel positions in Syria including arms, transportation, communications and control positions in its biggest intervention in the Middle East in decades, while U.S. officials expressed serious concerns about the true intentions behind the attacks. Russia launched airstrikes for the first time in the Syrian territory on Wednesday, plunging a four-and-a-half-year old civil war into a volatile new phase as President Vladimir Putin moved forcefully to add a dramatic edge to competition for influence in the Middle East. The bombarding on the ISIS positions began following a tense meeting in which a Russian general asked Pentagon officials to clear out of Syrian air space.

The strikes reportedly hit areas near the strategic town of Jisr al-Shughour, held by an alliance of insurgents, Army of Conquest, including al Qaeda’s Nusra Front as well as Idlib province, including the Zawiya Mountain region, as well as areas in Hama province further south. The Idlib is of greater strategic importance due to its proximity to Bashar al-Assad’s heartland in Latakia province on the Mediterranean coast. Pro-opposition sources confirmed at least 30 airstrikes and about five casualties so far. The Army of Conquest alliance had made advances in the north-west in recent months taking Idlib from pro-government forces.

Earlier Wednesday, the upper house of the Russian Parliament gave Mr. Putin approval to use air force in Syria. The Russian defense ministry confirmed it had carried out about 20 flights over Syria, hitting eight Islamic State targets and destroying an Islamic State command post and an operations center in a mountainous region. Syrians living in the rebel-controlled areas of Homs province said the Russian air force started a whole new level of devastation on their towns that were reported to have killed at least 33 civilians including children.

The strikes sharply escalated the tensions with Russia as U.S. officials disputed Moscow’s claim that its aircraft targeted the Islamic State that controls much of Syria and Iraq. Instead, U.S. officials said the Russian strikes appeared to have hit areas where there was no ISIS presence, and that the targets were non-ISIS opponents of Russia’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. According to the U.S. officials, Russian airstrikes targeted fighters in the vicinity of Homs, located roughly 60 miles east of a Russian naval facility in Tartus, and were carried out by a “couple” of Russian bombers. Activists and a rebel commander on the ground said the Russian airstrikes mostly hit moderate rebel positions and civilians.

"We see some very sophisticated air defenses going into those airfields. We see some very sophisticated air-to-air aircraft going into these airfields. I have not seen ISIL flying any airplanes that require SA-15s or SA-22s (Russian missiles). I have not seen ISIL flying any airplanes that require sophisticated air-to-air capabilities," Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO's supreme allied commander, said on Monday.

"I'm looking at the capabilities and the capacities that are being created and I determine from that what might be their intent. These very sophisticated air defense capabilities are not about ISIL. They're about something else," he concluded.

Accusing Russia of “pouring gasoline on the fire,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said, “Fighting ISIL without pursuing a parallel political transition only risks escalating the civil war in Syria and with it the very extremism and instability that Moscow claims to be concerned about and aspire to fighting.”

The Russian intervention – which took place with a limited knowledge to the U.S. government – threatens to upend the US-led coalition that has been fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq for the last year, especially at a time when U.S. military officials are closing-in on the progress against the Islamic State. It also raises stakes over competing visions for Syria outlined this week at the United Nations where Mr. Putin insisted that Syria’s embattled government is the key to instability in the region.