Syrian President Bashar Assad said a new campaign launched this week by a Russian-helmed coalition must succeed. The future of the entire region depends on it, he declared.
"It must succeed or we are facing the destruction of a whole region, and not a country or two," Assad said during an hour-long interview on Iranian television station Khabar TV. He added that he is optimistic Russian forces will prevail. "The chances for success are large, not small."
The air strikes, which began Wednesday, are likely to last three to four months, according to Russian officials, and they come at a moment when Assad’s regime is at its weakest. The president’s forces control just 25 percent of Syrian territory, and according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, ISIS forces last month captured the last of the oil fields that had been under Assad’s control.
While Syrian media have framed Russia's offensive as a counterattack against ISIS, calling the air-strike targets "ISIS dens," there is evidence suggesting that Russia's bombs have been concentrated in four regions where ISIS has very little presence. Instead, the four regions -- the provinces of Homs, Hama, Idlib and Aleppo -- are controlled by Jaysh al-Fateh, a coalition of rebel groups backed primarily by Qatari and Saudi interests.
“The goal of the Russian planes isn’t Daesh [ISIS] or Jabhat al-Nusra, their target is every fighter in the Levant,” an official from Jaysh al-Fateh told The Guardian. “This flagrant intervention is aimed at supporting Assad under the guise of fighting terrorism.”
Earlier this week, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said that attacking rebel groups besides ISIS would be counterproductive, likening the strategy to “pouring gasoline on the fire.”
“It does appear that they were in areas where there probably were not ISIL forces, and that is precisely one of the problems with this whole approach,” Carter said.
Assad was dismissive of Western criticism in his remarks on Iranian television. "What is for certain is that the Western officials are lost, lack clarity of vision and are feeling the failure of their plots," Assad said. "The only goal that was realized ... is the destruction of much infrastructure in Syria, shedding lots of blood."
Since it began, more than 250,000 people have lost their lives in the Syrian civil conflict. More than half of its population has been displaced, with 4 million people fleeing the country and another 8 million domestically displaced.