It’s official. As of Wednesday, the Russian air force officially began carrying out airstrikes against Islamic State targets throughout Syria. The reality on the ground during the first day, however, told a different story. Russian air strikes killed 17 civilians in Talbiseh, a town in the rural northwestern province of Homs, nearly 30 miles away from areas controlled by ISIS militants. Russian warplanes also reportedly targeted Tajamu al-Ezzah, a US-backed rebel group, in the northern rural areas of Hama province.
Residents of Talbiseh who met with Syria Deeply expressed anger over Moscow’s attacks on the town, and what they believe to be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s move to prop up the beleaguered government of Bashar al-Assad. “Russia launched the attacks to protect Assad. These are Putin’s words, but he actually attacked civilians,” said Abdul Latif, a 34-year-old father of three from Talbiseh, who works at an auto shop in town and volunteers with the local council in his spare time, distributing food aid to needy members of the community.
“He wants to protect Assad by killing civilians? We cannot tell who will kill us next. It was Assad, then Iran and Hezbollah, and now Russia. They are all killing innocent Syrians. What price did Assad pay to Russia for this kind of protection?” asked Latif, indignantly.
“Where is this ‘Friends of Syria’ group? Everyone talks of helping Syrians: the U.S., Europe and the Gulf, but where are they? Why don’t they do something? They have sat and watched while we were slaughtered for five years now, but they have done nothing serious about it,” argued Latif. He told Syria Deeply that in Talbiseh they call Obama “the chicken” because he lacks the will or the courage to stand up to Russia.
Abdul Latif is not the only one who criticized the Friends of Syria group, though. Many of the people Syria Deeply spoke with throughout the day expressed anger and disappointment.
Lamya, a 22-year-old medical student at the University of Homs, believes Putin’s decision to get involved militarily in Syria’s civil war is a clear attempt “to weaken the militant opposition on the ground, so that when negotiations start, Assad will be in a stronger position.”
“Our biggest problem,” argued Lamya, “is that we do not have a political entity that truly represents Syrians and cares for them. All the Syrian National Coalition does is condemn others. They’ve taken no actions and have no political weight. People are fed up with them. I won’t call them traitors, like many Syrians do, but honestly, stupidity, irresponsibility and impotence are not much better than treason.”
Abu Abdul Ilah, a 41-year-old Algerian currently in Idlib fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra, framed Russia’s military intervention in a different light. “This is a war on Islam,” said Abdul Ilah, who recently moved to Syria after years of fighting with al-Qaeda in Iraq. “Russia has had animosity toward jihadists ever since the days of Chechnya and Afghanistan,” he said, arguing that Russia is using the conflict in Syria as expedient opportunity to take revenge.
“The Russian Orthodox Church supports Putin’s military intervention in Syria and calls it a holy war. Why is our jihad seen as terrorism, while when they fight in the name of religion, it’s seen as ‘necessary?’” he asked.
Ahmad, a 52-year-old doctor from Kensabba on the outskirts of the coastal city of Latakia, told Syria Deeply the global community should unite and fight both the Assad government and the Islamic State. “They’re both terrorists,” he argued.
Ahmad said he found it hard to understand the logic of Moscow’s recent air raids, given Putin’s purported purpose for getting involved in Syria’s civil war, now in its fifth year, was to defeat ISIS. “We just received news that the Russians targeted the U.S.-backed First Coastal Division in the Jabal al-Turkman area in Latakia,” he said. “This a group that fights against the Islamic State. If they had really hit the Islamic State, Syrians would have welcomed their raids, but instead, they targeted moderate opposition groups and civilians.”
Syrians have lost trust in the world’s leaders, especially in the U.S. government’s espoused slogans of human rights, democracy and justice for all. “For the last five years, the whole world has been watching the slaughter of Syrians every day, but nobody moved a strand of hair on their head. Our crime was that we dreamed of democracy and justice, but what we received instead were death, displacement and torture, while the developed world has watched and done nothing. How can we trust them or believe their slogans?” asked Ahmad.
“Some Europeans worry that the wave of Syrian refugees flooding Europe will change its character. We understand their concerns, but I believe that in order to stop this wave, Europe should help us get rid of the causes that forced Syrians to leave their country in the first place. Assad is every bit as responsible as the Islamic State for the displacement of Syrian people,” he added.
Top Image: Smoke rises after Russian airstrikes hit the town Kafr Nabel on Thursday, 1 October 2015, in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province. (Hadi Al-Abdallah/Associated Press)