Although Russian President Vladimir Putin has portrayed Russia’s latest military buildup as an effort to combat ISIS, Russia’s first airstrikes in Syria on Wednesday targeted opposition groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad instead, killing at least 36 civilians. The Russians notified the US about their plans only an hour before their airstrikes and asked the US to get out of Syrian airspace. Russia has been building up its military presence in Syria in the past few weeks and coordinating and sharing intelligence with Iran. The New York Times reported that Russian drones have not been seen over areas controlled by the Islamic State and according to activists, locals and rebels, the areas in the Syrian province of Homs that were hit by the Russians are not controlled by ISIS, but “by an array of rebel groups including several operating under the banner of the ‘Free Syrian Army,’” a Western-backed group. The Assad regime has similarly avoided targeting ISIS and has bought oil from the terrorist group. Assad has let ISIS grow while weakening moderate opposition elements in order to present himself as the only alternative to the radical group. Russia has also presented the survival of the Assad regime as essential to fighting Islamic State.
Secretary of State John Kerry asserted that the US would “welcome” Russian military action in Syria if it is directed against ISIS but that the US would have "grave concerns" if Russia conducted strikes against other groups. Analysts believe that Putin’s primary goals are to expand Russian influence in the Middle East and bolster Assad’s weakening regime. Fabrice Balanche, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute, wrote that Russian airstrikes “seemed to focus on rebel areas that threaten the Assad regime's Alawite heartland.” Former Director of the CIA General David Petraeus stated, "If Russia wanted to fight ISIS, they could have joined the 60-plus member coalition… this is clearly not what they're up to." Former US Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, told MSNBC that he is surprised that while striking moderate opposition targets, Russia isn’t even hitting one Islamic State target to reinforce their narrative that they are fighting Islamic State. Ford stated, “They aren’t even trying that fig leaf. They are just going directly to help Assad.”
The Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen announced the seizure of an Iranian fishing boat carrying weapons apparently intended for the Houthis, Agence France-Presse reported today.
A coalition statement said that the vessel was intercepted on Saturday and that 14 Iranians and weapons including anti-tank shells were found on board.
It said that papers found on board the boat showed that it was registered to an Iranian and was licensed for fishing by the Iranian authorities.
It listed the weapons seized as 18 anti-armored Concourse shells, 54 anti-tank BGM17 shells, 15 shell battery kits, four firing guidance systems, five binocular batteries, three launchers, one launchers’ holder and three batteries.
The Saudis and other Gulf states are maintaining a naval blockade around Yemen to ensure that Iran doesn’t smuggle weapons to the rebels. In May, an Iranian ship challenged the blockade and eventually agreed to offload its cargo under international supervision to distribute inside Yemen.
Last October, the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels captured much of Sanaa, Yemen’s capital city. The Houthis continued to block the formation of a new Yemeni government and captured the presidential palace in January. President Abbed Rabbo Mansour Hadifled to Aden in March, declaring the city the capital, before escaping to exile in Saudi Arabia. The coalition to defeat the Houthis is led by Saudi Arabia and bolstered by the armed forces of other Arab countries, units of the Yemeni military, “popular committees” of Yemeni citizens, student protesters, and Sunni tribal factions. (via TheTower.org)