Russian air strikes hit CIA-trained rebels, commander says

By Tom Perry and Naline Malla BEIRUT (Reuters) - Two Russian air strikes in Syria on Thursday hit a training camp operated by a rebel group that received military training from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, its commander said. The attack on the Liwa Suqour al-Jabal group in Idlib province was at least the third Russian air raid on a mainstream Free Syrian Army rebel faction that has received military support from President Bashar al-Assad's foreign enemies. Hassan Haj Ali, head of the Liwa Suqour al-Jabal, told Reuters that the camp in Idlib province was struck by around 20 missiles in two separate sorties. Haj Ali, a Syrian army captain who defected after the 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, said some of the guards of the facility were slightly wounded in the attack. "Russia is challenging everyone and saying there is no alternative to Bashar," Haj Ali said. He said the Russian jets had been identified by members of his group who once served as Syrian air force pilots. The CIA has run an ostensibly covert training programme for vetted Syrian rebel groups deemed moderate by Western states that have supported the uprising against Assad. Vetted groups in northern Syria have received military support via an operations room based in Turkey. The programme is separate to the U.S. military's train and equip programme aimed at building a Syrian rebel force to fight ultra-radical Islamic State insurgents. That programme is struggling. The Free Syrian Army was set up by Syrian army defectors after the eruption of the uprising. The FSA today is a loose alliance of rebel groups without a centralised command and control structure. Haj Ali said his fighters had attended several training sessions in Qatar and Saudi Arabia. It is at least the third Free Syrian Army group to report being targeted in air strikes that Russia says are targeting Islamic State. U.S. Senator John McCain said on Thursday Russia's initial air strikes in Syria targeted recruits in the Free Syrian Army rebel group backed by the United States. FSA groups have been eclipsed in much of Syria by jihadists such as Islamic State and the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. The head of another FSA recipient of foreign military support said it was also hit by a Russian air strike overnight. Yasser Abu Ammar, head of al-Wosta division, said one of his group's headquarters was hit in the Hama countryside. "They want to weaken the Free Syrian Army and thus only Daesh (Islamic State) remains. Now Russia through these air strikes is destroying all efforts to seek a political solution,” Abu Ammar told Reuters by phone. The head of another FSA group, a recipient of advanced anti-tank weapons supplied by foreign states, told Reuters on Wednesday that his group was also struck. In what appeared to be the first Russian air strike in an area firmly controlled by Islamic State, the Tabqa air base in Raqqa province in eastern Syria was bombed on Thursday, said Lebanon's al-Mayadeen TV, which has good contacts in Syria. Islamic State seized Tabqa air base in August 2014 and killed scores of captive government soldiers, in what was a major symbolic blow for the Syrian military at the time. Al-Mayadeen said Russian warplanes on Thursday also hit rural parts of Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria that is also held by Islamic State. (Reporting by Tom Perry and Sylvia Westall; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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