Russia's claim to have mainly targeted Islamist militants during a six-month military intervention in the Syrian civil war was false, a private think tank on international affairs said in a report Tuesday.
The Washington-based Atlantic Council's 32-page report, Distract, Deceive, Destroy: Putin at War in Syria, compiled using open sources, further alleged that Russian forces sometimes struck civilian targets and used cluster munitions.
President Vladimir Putin said in September as the Russian military was preparing the operation that his goals were to fight Islamic State forces and remove terrorist impediments to peace talks.
"Neither claim squares with the facts," the report said. "Initial Russian Defense Ministry combat reports claimed that [the Islamic State group] was the only target. Yet analysis of open source and social media intelligence (OSSMINT) quickly revealed that the ministry's claims were deceptive."
Russian strikes were "not primarily targeting" Islamic State forces, which suffered only "peripheral damage" during six months of Russia airstrikes, which ended on March 14, the report said.
"In fact, the main beneficiary of the Russian airstrikes was Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose forces were able to retake key areas in and around Latakia and Aleppo. The main losers were the more moderate rebels against Assad, including those backed by the West," the report found.
"The hallmark of the Russian campaign was disinformation. It accompanied the launch of the campaign; it covered the targets chosen and the weapons used to strike them; it masked the real purpose of the campaign, and the strategic effect that it achieved."
In a forward to the report, Atlantic Council executive vice president Damon Wilson said that the Russian military campaign actually prolonged the Syrian war, which arose from peaceful reform protests in 2011 against al-Assad, whose government is allied with Moscow.
"The results have been grievous. Russia carried out its airstrikes with scant regard for the rules of war: Open-source footage shows the repeated use of banned cluster munitions, and strikes on targets including mosques, hospitals, and water treatment plants," he said.
"Imagine the outcry if the United States or its allies conducted military operations in this manner."
Wilson said that Putin "cynically claimed" to have been fighting Islamic State extremists: "Nothing could be further from the truth. ... Russia almost exclusively targeted non-[Islamic State] targets. These are the truths that Russia will not admit, and the truths that must be understood when negotiating with Russia as a potential partner."
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