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Russian strikes in Syria don't appear to be limited to Islamic State

Russian strikes in Syria don't appear to be limited to Islamic State
In this photo made from footage taken from the Russian Defense Ministry website on Oct. 1, 2015, a bomb explodes in Syria. (AP)

Russian warplanes carried out a second day of airstrikes in Syria on Thursday, attacking opposition strongholds that imperil government control of the pivotal western and central core of the country.

The two days of Russian aerial assault have begun to suggest a pattern: The bombardment seems less about targeting Islamic State than going after opposition-held territory — regardless of rebel affiliation — that threatens heavily populated areas still under the dominion of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

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Russia, like the Assad government, does not appear to be distinguishing between Syrian rebel groups, regarding all as "terrorists," apparently even those backed by the United States and its allies.

Despite the Russian Defense Ministry's insistence that it was striking Islamic State positions, it was unclear whether any of the targets hit so far were held by Islamic State, which is concentrated in thinly populated areas of northern and eastern Syria.

Much of the Syrian population still resides in the central and western regions, the areas where Russia focused its bombardment. Assad's continuing hold in the regions provides his beleaguered administration some claim of legitimacy after having lost much of the national territory to various rebel groups.

The Russian bombing strategy jibes with Moscow's stated aim of shoring up Assad and his administration as a bulwark against terrorism. In the Kremlin's view, defeating terrorists in Syria begins with aiding Assad and his severely overstretched army.

But that blueprint conflicts directly with U.S. policy. The Obama administration labels Assad a magnet for terrorists and has called for the Syrian president to step down.

The White House on Thursday assailed what it called Russia's "indiscriminate" strikes against Syrian opposition. A day earlier, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter accused Russia of "pouring gasoline on the fire" in Syria, where the war is in its fifth year, with no end in sight.

Russian officials have dismissed as Western propaganda reports of scores of civilian casualties in the airstrikes in Syria.

Russian warplanes, working in conjunction with the Syrian military, have been focusing their firepower on a broad swath of territory distinct from the Islamic State-dominated areas targeted by U.S. and allied airstrikes.

Various opposition-held pockets in Homs, Idlib, Hama and Latakia provinces have reportedly been hit in about two dozen Russian strikes. The areas targeted pose a threat to government supply lines and to loyalist population centers, including Latakia and the entire Mediterranean coast, an Assad bastion and home to a Russian naval base and an airport used by Russian jets.

Among the areas targeted by Russia were the rebel-held town of Talbiseh, north of Homs city, and the northwestern city of Jisr al Shughur, close to the fringes of Latakia province.

This year, a rebel coalition known as the Army of Conquest, including the Al Qaeda affiliate Al Nusra Front, overran Jisr al Shughur and much of the northwestern province of Idlib. The rebel presence there threatens coastal Latakia. The Russian airstrikes, however, could open the way for a long-rumored Syrian army counteroffensive to take back Jisr al Shughur.

"By attacking the Army of Conquest, Russia is trying to shift the balance of power near the coastal provinces that are Assad's power base," said Fawaz A. Gerges, professor of the international relations at the London School of Economics. "The weight of evidence indicates that Russia is determined to prevent the collapse of the Assad regime and has taken major risks to do so."

In New York, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov acknowledged to reporters Thursday that targets in Syria included Al Nusra Front and other "terrorist groups." The targeting, he suggested, was no different from that of the U.S.-led coalition, which has almost exclusively targeted Islamic State but has also hit Al Qaeda-linked positions.

"If it looks like a terrorist, if it acts like a terrorist, if it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist — it's a terrorist," Lavrov declared at a news conference at the United Nations. "Right?"

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Russia's top diplomat said Moscow was not targeting the Free Syrian Army, the loose-knit umbrella group that has received aid from the United States and its allies in the Persian Gulf and Turkey. While including many Islamist fighters, and often working in conjunction with Al Qaeda-linked groups, Free Syrian Army brigades are generally regarded as the most moderate elements in an armed opposition dominated by hard-core militants.

In recent days, however, a number of Free Syrian Army commanders and activists have said that their positions were hit in the Russian aerial barrage.

The Russians' "intention is not to destroy terror as they say, but to kill the revolution and the Syrian people," Maj. Jamil Saleh of the Free Syrian Army-affiliated Gathering of Unity faction, said in an interview posted on social media.

According to the major, Russian airstrikes Wednesday hit his group's headquarters in the town of Latamneh, northwest of the city of Hama. He gave no casualty figures.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told CNN that the groups hit by Russian warplanes include Free Syrian Army units trained by the CIA.

Despite their differences, U.S. and Russian officials were working to "de-conflict" operations in the skies over Syria. Commanders from both nations are keen to avoid a catastrophic mistake that could lead to a wider conflict.

On Thursday, Pentagon and Russian defense chiefs had their first round of military-to-military talks on the topic.

The discussion centered on how the two countries' air crews could use international radio frequencies to communicate if they came in contact.

"Anytime you have an aircraft pointing at you that has air-to-air missiles, you're concerned," said Lt. Gen. Robert Otto, Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence and surveillance. "It's almost like when you're driving down the road and you see someone driving in your lane in the opposite direction — it immediately gets your attention."

As the Russian involvement in Syria deepens, a U.S. defense official said there was no indication that Iranian forces were mobilizing to maneuver in coordination with the Russian airstrikes. Iran has provided military advisors, logistical aid and financial assistance to Assad's government, but Tehran has denied sending any ground troops to Syria.

Despite 13 months of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, the U.S.-led coalition has been unable to dislodge Islamic State militants from any of the major cities captured during its rampage through the region more than a year ago, with one exception.

The city of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, was won back from Islamic State in April when Iranian military advisors were deployed alongside Iraqi soldiers and Shiite Muslim militia fighters.

Times staff writer McDonnell and special correspondent Bulos reported from Beirut and staff writer Hennigan from Washington. Staff writers Carol J. Williams in Odessa, Ukraine, and Michael A. Memoli in Washington contributed to this report.

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Follow McDonnell on Twitter at @mcdneville for news out of the Middle East

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