Syria Russia
Residents search for survivors in Maaret al-Numan, a town in Syria’s Idlib province that activists said was hit by Russian airstrikes meant to target rebel groups rather than ISIS. At least 70 people died in the attack Jan. 9, 2016. Reuters/Khalil Ashawi

Russian forces Saturday deployed four vacuum bombs above the town of Maaret al-Numan in northern Syria. At least 70 people died from the explosions and powerful shockwaves, which gutted buildings and incinerated streets.

There’s a peculiar pattern to Russia’s airstrikes in Syria, a U.S. government official suggested. Rather than honing in on their stated target — the Islamic State group — these missiles seem frequently to veer into areas known to be popular with rebel groups who are not affiliated with the terrorist group, aka ISIS. Maaret al-Numan in Syria’s Idlib province has been held by rebels since last spring.

If true, this suggests Russia is using its airstrikes as a political weapon to support the nation’s troubled leadership under the guise of anti-terrorist operations. Russia has denied such accusations.

A senior U.S. government official said Saturday since Russia began its campaign Sept. 30, as many as 70 percent of the 5,000 airstrikes targeted rebels rather than ISIS. The rebels oppose Syrian President Bashar Assad, with whom Russian President Vladimir Putin is friendly. Only a third of the strikes took aim at ISIS.

“We are not convinced of what the Russian intentions are,” the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told Reuters in Brussels. The U.S. is leading a separate coalition group conducting airstrikes against the terrorists.

Furthermore, the official said strikes intended for rebel groups often hit residential areas or public places such as open-air markets. Russia has said its airstirkes are aimed at ISIS and that the military carefully avoids residential areas.

The official said Russia’s attacks were driving the continuing refugee crisis. About 4.3 million people have left Syria in the throes of civil war and fled to Europe and nearby countries such asTurkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt.