ABOARD THE ADMIRAL ESSEN — Russia fired a salvo of cruise missiles from the Mediterranean on Thursday and said they struck Islamic State targets in eastern Syria. Activists there said at least 20 civilians were killed in what they described a “fanatical” bombardment — blaming some of it on Russia and some on the United States.
It was not clear whether there was a connection between the Russian military strikes and the activists’ accounts, reflecting the challenge of verifying the conflicting claims in the hostile environment of Syria’s civil war, now in its seventh year.
The seven Kalibr cruise missiles, launched from the submarines Veliky Novgorod and Kolpino, hit IS installations in Deir el-Zour province, the Russian Defense Ministry said. The province is where forces backed separately by Washington and Moscow are racing to seize territory in the jihadist group’s shrinking Euphrates River valley domain.
But Turkey-based activist Omar Abou Layla said their local contacts reported “fanatical” levels of bombardment on three IS-held towns and villages along the valley — far more than could be accounted for by seven missiles — including an attack on the national hospital in the IS stronghold of al-Mayadeen, where six civilians were reported killed. Abou Layla put the toll at 20 killed across the province. He added that the provincial capital, also called Deir el-Zour, suffered heavy airstrikes as well.
Russian-backed pro-government forces have been on the offensive to take back the city after breaking an IS siege there last week. It was the first time reinforcements were able to reach the city in nearly three years.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 39 people were killed and over 100 wounded in strikes in the river valley, including some against hospitals and ferry crossings. The monitoring group said the U.S.-led international coalition, which is supporting nongovernment forces, was behind some of the strikes.
It has been impossible to verify the claims independently. Russia and the Syrian government only allows journalists into the country on carefully orchestrated media tours meant to showcase their might and legitimacy in the conflict; the U.S. does not accept embedded journalists at all.
With pro-government forces already inside the city of Deir el-Zour, the chief U.S. partners in Syria — the Syrian Democratic Forces — launched their own campaign to take what they can in the valley.
All sides say…