- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Russian forces are not attacking the Islamic State in Syria unless its terrorist army is battling troops of President Bashar Assad, the U.S. military said Wednesday.

The assessment from Operation Inherent Resolve directly contradicts claims by the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin, which has repeatedly claimed its warplanes are unleashing strikes on the Islamic State, including its headquarters in Raqqa in central Syria, along with strikes on anti-Assad rebel groups backed by the West.

Army Col. Seven Warren, the top U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said 90 percent of Russian airstrikes are directed at rebel groups opposed to Mr. Assad, a longtime Russian ally. The Assad regime has been charged with indiscriminately killing civilians with chemical weapons and, more recently, with unguided “barrel bombs.”

Col. Warren said the few strikes against the Islamic State, also known as ISIL and ISIS, occur when Russia needs to protect Mr. Assad.

Under criticism for its selective targeting practices, the Russians a month ago released a video of what it said was an airstrike on an Islamic State oil truck. But Col. Warren said there have been few if any such sorties since then.

“Ten percent, I think at the most, would be against ISIL targets,” he said.

Moscow claims otherwise and insists it is fighting the world’s most violent Islamic terrorist group, which is the main target of the U.S.-led coalition also fighting the Islamic State in Syria and neighboring Iraq.

On Jan. 19, Russia’s Tass news agency said Russian aircraft made 157 sorties in the previous four days against 579 terrorist targets, including Islamic State strongholds.

“Over 60 Islamic State gunmen killed in Russian airstrikes in Syria’s Deir ez-Zor province,” was the Tass headline.

The U.S.-led coalition has been bombing Islamic State fighters in Syria since August 2014, averaging about six strikes a day.

Many of the Islamic States’s day-to-day functions in Raqqa remain untouched because U.S. rules of engagement limit strikes that would create civilian hardships.

Separately, the Russian Defense Ministry revealed Wednesday that a Russian military adviser has been killed by mortar fire in Syria, the third acknowledged combat casualty the Russian military has suffered since it launched its air campaign in Syria four months ago.

The ministry said in a statement that the officer was fatally wounded Monday by mortar shelling from the Islamic State group, according to an Associated Press report. Wednesday’s statement, carried by Russian news agencies, said the officer was helping train the Syrian military in using Russian weapons, but he did not identify the officer or specify where he died.

Although the Russian bombing runs have been criticized as indiscriminate, they appear to have bolstered the beleaguered Assad regime and its army. Syrian state-run TV and Lebanon’s Hezbollah TV reported Wednesday the Syrian army and allied militiamen have broken a long-running rebel siege of two Shiite villages in the northern Aleppo province.

The reports said the siege of Nubl and Zahra was broken Wednesday by the army and Shiite militias known as the Popular Defense Committees.

The two villages, located in the middle of opposition territory, have been blockaded by rebel groups for about three years.

Russian officials say they see no reason to pull back on their air campaign, even as U.N.-organized peace talks got off to a halting start this week in Geneva.

“The goal of the operation is to defeat the terrorist organizations the Islamic State and Nusra Front,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Tass while on a visit to Oman on Wednesday. “I don’t see any reason why the air campaign should be stopped as long as the terrorists are not defeated.”

• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at rscarborough@washingtontimes.com.

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