The civil war in Syria has recently intensified due to Russian air and naval support to Syrian government forces fighting against rebels that seek to force President Bashar al-Assad’s resignation. Initially, Russia claimed its intervention was strictly aimed at debilitating the military capabilities of the Islamic State (IS). However, Russian airstrikes have also been directed at non-IS rebel forces in western Syria. Some of the rebel forces that have come under attack are backed by the United States as part of a covert operation led by the CIA that began in 2014, which has the goal of training and arming rebel forces with heavier weapons and armor.
A number of non-IS rebel groups have been using anti-tank missiles (Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire-guided missiles or TOWs) manufactured in the United States. These TOWs helped the non-IS rebels offset Russian attacks last week after Assad’s army, along with Russian support, considerably pushed rebel forces from their positions. The use of TOWs has been compared to the use of the Stinger surface-to-air missiles provided by the United States to the mujahedeen during the Soviet-Afghan War to force the Soviet Union out of the country (also known as Operation Cyclone).
Despite Russia’s somewhat successful assistance, rebels managed to kill two members of Hezbollah, a Shiite Lebanese militant group that has been actively providing armed support to Assad’s forces. Rebels also killed a military commander belonging to another of Syria’s key allies, Iran, most likely as a result of the weaponry provided by the United States.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) —composed of mostly Western countries and led by the United States— has already condemned Russia’s intervention in Syria. The increasing Russian attacks near the borders of Turkey —a NATO member country— have alarmed NATO’s defense ministers. Furthermore, the attacks have led Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, a branch of al-Qaeda in Syria, to exhort his followers to carry out attacks inside Russia as revenge for the Russian strikes in Syria.
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