BEIRUT—Russia’s first airstrikes in Syria showed a meticulously planned effort to eliminate any rebel threat to the coastal stronghold of Moscow ally President Bashar al-Assad and his Shiite-linked Alawite minority, officials and analysts said.
The Russian raids appeared to hew closely to an arc running on the fringes of this strategic core. The targeted area serves as a gateway to the regime’s heartland, which rebels have tried to breach with increasingly audacious assaults since the start of the year.
“The Russians are sending a strong message that they will do everything to make sure the regime retains its grip on its strongholds,” said Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese army general and a military analyst.
The Russian attacks may be a prelude to sweeping military operations against all of Mr. Assad’s foes, analysts said. Iran and Shiite militias such as Hezbollah are already supporting Syrian forces and Tehran said Thursday that it backed joint military action in Syria .
Russia on Thursday dismissed Western assertions that it wasn’t targeting Islamic State extremists but was only bombing other opponents of the Assad regime .
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The White House challenged Russia’s claim that the airstrikes were targeting Islamic State militants, saying Thursday that Moscow was carrying out “indiscriminate military operations” in areas where the group isn’t operating. A White House official also dismissed the possibility that Russia had inadvertently bombed non-Islamic State areas. U.S. officials say the Russian military bombed one area primarily held by rebels backed by the Central Intelligence Agency and allied spy services .
Contrary to claims by the Russian Ministry of Defense, none of the areas that were hit have a known Islamic State presence. At least two of the rebel factions attacked by the Russians—Tajamu Al-Ezzeh and the Central Division—have received weapons including advanced antitank missiles and funding from the U.S. and its allies, according to rebel leaders .
Also on Thursday, the U.S. and Russia held military talks in an effort to avoid midair collisions and other disasters as both countries conduct air operations over Syria. But the Pentagon said the talks ended without any agreement .
The arc that the Russian airstrikes followed begins around the town of Jisr al-Shughour in northern Idlib province near the Turkish border and adjacent to an agricultural area known as the Ghab Plain. It cuts through the central Syrian cities of Hama and Homs and ends at the Lebanese border .
Alawites—the regime’s base of support—are concentrated west of the arc in an area that includes Latakia province. Everything east is dominated by the country’s Sunni majority, to which most of those fighting the regime belong .
A series of tit-for-tat massacres during the more than four-year conflict have solidified this sectarian fault line .
Islamist rebels seized Jisr al-Shughour in April of this year. They then began a concerted effort over the summer to pierce this line with the capture of several Alawite villages in the Ghab Plain .
In the second wave of Russian strikes overnight between Wednesday and Thursday, warplanes struck rebel positions in Hama and Idlib provinces .
On Wednesday, strikes hit rebel-held enclaves north of Homs city and in parts of Hama province adjacent to Idlib, according to witnesses and opposition activists. The targets were identical to those listed by the Syrian regime as having been hit by Russian warplanes and included the ones announced by Moscow on Thursday .
The airstrikes highlighted a tightening military and strategic alliance among Russia and other pro-regime parties, such as Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said coordination between the regime and its allies for this military operation was continuing .
“A limited set of targets was previously surveilled and designated and the strikes occurred on this basis,” he told Russia Today, a state TV network.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry welcomed Russia’s military intervention in Syria on Thursday, saying it was the right step to fight terrorism and a move toward bringing stability to the region .
“Fighting terrorism effectively requires a strong and serious will and has to be based on cooperation with the governments of Iraq and Syria,” Marzieh Afkham, spokeswoman for the ministry, said according to Iranian media reports .
Ibrahim al-Amin, a Lebanese commentator and newspaper editor close to Hezbollah and Iran, said Moscow essentially provided a green light for a counteroffensive against rebels across the political spectrum .
“From our side, we can no longer ignore the decision of the axis of resistance, backed by Russia, to not only prevent Assad’s fall but to also weaken all his foes. All his foes without any distinction,” wrote Mr. Amin in the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar on Thursday .
“We must benefit from Russian support to launch tough and decisive battles in several places in Syria,” he added .
Before the latest Russian intervention, Iran played a pivotal role propping-up pro-regime militias made up largely of Alawites and Shiites. It has orchestrated thousands of Shiite fighters mainly from Lebanon and Iraq with Hezbollah being in the lead.
These forces were instrumental in driving out most rebels from Homs city and the countryside to the south in 2013 and 2014. Today, Hezbollah maintains a permanent base in the town of Qusayr south of Homs .
But thousands of rebels regrouped in several enclaves north of Homs, in towns like al-Rastan and Talbiseh. Russian jets hit both civilian and military targets in these two towns and five surrounding villages, said Rashid al-Hourani, a Syrian army officer from the area who defected to the rebels in 2012
He said the airstrikes were followed with a barrage of artillery fire from several nearby positions where pro-regime Alawite and Shiite militias, including an Iran-backed group known as the Ridha Brigade, have been massing over the past few days.
Mr. Hourani said rebels retaliated by firing rockets Wednesday against Alawite neighborhoods inside Homs city
“The Russians want to crush the first seed of the Syrian revolution,” he said
The Russian Ministry of Defense said jet fighters carried out attacks on four Islamic State positions, including a fortified command post in central Hama province and an ammunition warehouse in northern Idlib province. A Russian bomb scored a direct hit on a bomb-making facility in central Homs province, the ministry said
Russian forces were taking precautions to avoid civilian casualties, it said
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry late Wednesday in New York and told reporters afterward: “The rumors that the targets of these strikes weren’t positions of ISIS are groundless,” he said, using another name for Islamic State. His comments were posted Thursday on the Russian Foreign Ministry website .
“In response to a request by the Syrian leadership, we are helping to fight exclusively … ISIS and other terrorist groups,” Mr. Lavrov said. He said Thursday that he doesn’t consider the Western-backed Free Syrian Army rebel group a terrorist group .
Mr. Lavrov didn’t specify which other groups were being targeted. But Russian President Vladimir Putin has made clear the Kremlin, like the Assad regime, considers other groups opposed to the