BEIRUT — Russia waded deeper into Syria’s civil war Thursday, striking rebel positions far from Islamic State strongholds for a second day and leaving little doubt that the immediate target of the intervention is to secure President Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power.
The expanding Russian involvement in Syria threatened to further complicate efforts to secure a negotiated settlement to the four-year-old war at a time when the influx of refugees into Europe and the endurance of the Islamic State are focusing world attention on the unrelenting bloodshed in Syria.
Amid indications that more Russian troops and military hardware may be heading to Syria, it remained unclear how far Moscow was prepared to go in support of its quest to spearhead a Russian-led solution to the war.
The latest attacks came as Russian officials extended an olive branch to moderate rebels fighting the Syrian government and said they could be included in Moscow’s plans for an eventual peace settlement.
Speaking at a news conference in New York, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that “the Free Syrian Army should be part of the political process.”
The comment seemed at odds, however, with airstrikes conducted against one of the few areas in the country where moderate rebels still have a foothold and from which the Islamic State was ejected more than a year and a half ago.
Thursday’s attacks focused on a strategically vital belt of territory in the provinces of Idlib, Hama and Homs, where steady rebel gains in recent months have threatened the government’s link between the capital Damascus and the Assad family’s coastal heartland of Latakia. The nearest Islamic State-controlled territory is more than 100 miles away.
Some of the towns struck are strongholds of a recently formed coalition, Jaish al-Fateh, or Army of Conquest, that includes the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra alongside an assortment of Islamist and moderate factions. Among the targets was a mosque in the northern Idlib town of Jisr al-Shughour, whose capture by the rebel coalition in April underscored the growing threat to the regime.
One strike hit the outskirts of Kafr Nabl, a town that has won renown as a symbol of the peaceful protest movement against Assad family rule. The local council there receives U.S. assistance, and the local rebels have been supported under a covert CIA program aimed at bolstering moderate rebels.
The strike hit a training camp for a U.S.-vetted group called Suqour al-Jabal that is adjacent to Roman ruins on the outskirts of the town, according to activists in the area. Raed Fares, a leader of the protest movement in Kafr Nabl, said the explosion was bigger than anything local residents had seen in three years of airstrikes conducted by Syrian warplanes.
“It was like a nuclear bomb,” he said. “It made a fire six kilometers wide.”
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook reiterated the U.S. assessment that the Russian planes “do not appear to be hitting targets in areas where ISIL is operating.”
“We have encouraged them, once again, to focus their attention on ISIL,” he added.
Russian officials insisted that the Islamic State was the main target of the air attacks, but also acknowledged that Jabhat al-Nusra “and other terrorist groups” were being included in the strikes, according to Lavrov.
“If it looks like a terrorist, if it acts like a terrorist, if it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist, it’s a terrorist,” Lavrov told journalists in New York.
He added that Russia does not consider the Free Syrian Army a terrorist group and said the participation of moderate rebels in any peace process was “absolutely necessary.”
In Moscow, however, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov questioned whether the Free Syrian Army exists, underscoring the gulf in perceptions of the anti-Assad rebellion between Russia and the United States, which has given limited support to moderate rebels in their quest to unseat the Assad regime.
“Is there a Free Syrian Army? Does it still exist? Have not the majority of its fighters switched sides and joined ISIL?” he said when asked whether Russia considers the Free Syrian Army a terrorist group.
The comment was certain to deepen suspicions by Washington and its allies that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s short-term aim is to give more breathing space to Assad, whose depleted and wearied forces have been losing ground to the rebels in southern and northern Syria since the spring.
The location of the strikes suggests the Russians’ immediate priority is to safeguard Syrian government communication lines between Damascus and the coast, where Russian troops are operating from an expanded air base not far from Assad’s home town of Qardaha, military analysts said.
A spokesman for Russia’s Defense Ministry, Igor Konashenkov, said that warplanes had hit a dozen Islamic State sites in the previous 24 hours, destroying targets including a command center and two arms depots.
In the first official Russian indication of the size of the intervention, Konashenkov told journalists in Moscow that Russia has deployed 50 warplanes and helicopters to the expanded Bassel al-Assad International Airport outside the coastal city of Latakia.
The strikes may not make a significant military difference to a battlefield that has remained largely stalemated for the past two years, with neither the rebels nor the government capable of delivering a decisive blow.
But with the Russian military buildup continuing, it remains unclear precisely what Russian intentions are, said Jeffrey White, a military analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Russian and Syrian news reports said more troops are heading for the Syrian coast, including Marines, airborne troops and special forces. A report by the official Syrian news agency, SANA, said amphibious landing craft are also expected to arrive in the coming days.
“What the Russians are doing is saying, ‘What is the priority threat to the regime?’ And they are dealing with that,” White said. “At some point, they might get around to hitting ISIS. But at the moment, it’s about the threat, not the group, and they want to deal with the threat to the regime.”
The targeting also seemed to diminish any hope that Russia would quickly win wider support for its vision of a peace settlement in Syria, central to which is the creation of an anti-Islamic State coalition that will include Syria and Iran, and which Russia is urging the United States to join.
The Syrian opposition said it would not countenance peace talks brokered by Moscow that appear aimed at propping up Assad and urged the U.N. Security Council to take action to stop the Russian bombing.
Syrian opposition figures, and some Free Syrian Army units, held discussions with Russian officials during the summer over possible ways to end the war, said Monzer Akbik, a senior official with the coalition. But the strikes suggest a different goal, he said: to bomb Syrian rebels into submission.
“What the Russians are trying to do is threaten the Syrian people that they are able to help Assad defeat you, to pressure the Syrians into accepting Assad to remain in power,” he said. “This is not going to happen. They will refuse to engage according to these terms.”
Roth reported from Moscow. Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.