TSI Roll Up: Local/Syrian Responses to Russian Intervention

10.6.15 post image

Ambulance reportedly destroyed in Russian air strike in Syria

In contrast to the initial responses from the international community to Russia’s military intervention in Syria, which can be generally characterized as cautious disapproval, responses from parties on the ground have been impassioned and unequivocal.

Syrians on the ground in opposition-held areas are angry, confused, and fearful. Friday prayers, public markets, and other gatherings were canceled in many towns, where residents feared being targeted by the Russians. In Latakia, a hospital was evacuated after Russian air strikes targeted another hospital nearby. Orient Humanitarian Relief, an organization that runs many hospitals in opposition-held areas, says that its emergency ambulance center in Idlib was targeted and destroyed in Russian strikes. Other Orient field hospitals and ambulances have also been targeted. Like many relief organizations, Orient does not work in ISIS-controlled areas. The intentional targeting of medical infrastructure is a strategy commonly employed by the Assad regime; it is also a war crime.

On Monday night, citizens in Idlib took to the streets to demonstrate against the Russian intervention:

According to Captain Jamil al-Saleh, leader of an FSA-affiliated rebel group targeted on the first day of Russia’s attacks, Russian bombing “is intended to exterminate the Free Syrian Army—no, the Syrian people.” Syrian rebels who have been supported by the U.S. feel betrayed; some even believe that the U.S. has made a secret deal with Russia allowing for their destruction.

The sentiment of those living in areas still controlled by the Assad regime is more difficult to gauge, as they must still cope with the watchful eye of regime security services, and some – particularly among religious and ethnic minorities – prefer the Assad government to rebels, whom they fear are led by Islamic extremists that may target minority groups if the regime were to fall. Syrian military and political officers and pro-regime militiamen in Assad’s coastal enclaves cheered the news of Russia’s intervention. The streets in government-controlled cities are now flooded with pictures of Putin, alongside those of Assad and other leaders who support him.

The Southern Front, a coalition of moderate rebel brigades operating in southern Syria, released a statement condemning the intervention, calling it an occupation, and declaring Russian and Iranian troops as “a legitimate target” for rebel fighters. Ahrar al-Sham, a powerful Islamist rebel force, released a similar statement co-signed by 41 rebel groups that called for attacks on Russian forces and asked allies in the region to form an alliance against Russian-Iranian aggression in Syria. Additionally, there are reports of new rebel group mergers and a new joint operations room in al-Rastan that includes Jabhat al-Nusra.

Jabhat al-Nusra – al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate – published bounty posters on social media offering rewards of approximately USD $15,900 for the capture of a Russian soldier.

Anger over Russian intervention has stoked religious fervor as well. Opposition news site all4syria posted a statement from the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria calling for resistance, or jihad, against Russian forces in Syria. This statement goes further than one released several weeks ago, before Russia’s bombing began, in which the group called on the international community to put political and diplomatic pressure on Russia as they were building up forces in Syria.

A group of 52 Saudi clerics reportedly made a sectarian call to arms, urging Muslims to join in jihad against Iran and Russia in Syria for their war against the Sunnis.

Neither United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon nor UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura have yet publicly commented on the Russian air strike campaign in Syria, but on Friday a spokeswoman for De Mistura stated that the UN was forced to “suspend its planned humanitarian intervention as part of the implementation of the ceasefire agreement,” in several Syrian towns along the Lebanese border, “due to the recent surge of military activities in the concerned areas.” According to Reuters, Russian air strikes within the ceasefire zone and around the highway to be used by a UN monitoring team, were the “surge of military activities,” referenced in the statement.

On Saturday, October 3, the Syrian Coalition – the primary group representing the political opposition to Bashar al-Assad – released an important joint statement co-signed by 71 rebel groups, eschewing the Working Group initiative cobbled together by UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura. The statement said that Syrians have lost faith in the international community’s efforts and that the Working Group initiative “ignores the majority of the relevant United Nations resolutions on Syria, particularly resolutions 2118, 2165 and 2139,” and that full implementation of these agreements is required as a confidence building measure. The statement also reiterated the opposition mantra that Assad has no place in a transitional political process, and condemned Russia’s military intervention.

The Oct. 3 statement is the result of an ongoing effort by the Coalition to sync with armed Syrian groups for the purposes of international negotiations, so that the Coalition will be in the position to make promises that will actually be respected on the ground. While some sort of statement on the Working Group initiative would have been ultimately released, the strength of this statement and its timing were strongly influenced by Russia’s intervention in Syria. The 71 rebel groups predictably excluded ISIS and the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, but beyond that included the majority of non-JN/ISIS rebels in Syria.