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20151022
Almost 80% of Russia's declared targets in Syria have been in areas not held by Islamic State, a Reuters analysis of Russian Defense Ministry data shows, undermining Moscow's assertions that its aim is to defeat the group.

The majority of strikes, according to the analysis, have instead been in areas held by other groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which include al Qaeda offshoots but also fighters backed by Washington and its allies.

Defense ministry statements of targets hit by the Russian Air Force and an online archive of Russian military maps show Russia has hit 64 named locations since President Vladimir Putin ordered the first round of air strikes three weeks ago.

Of those targets, a maximum of 15 were in areas held by Islamic State, according to a survey of locations of the rival forces in Syria compiled by the Institute for the Study of War.

"If you look at the map, you can easily understand that they are not fighting Islamic State but other opposition groups," said Alexander Golts, a Moscow-based defense columnist and deputy editor of online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.

The data supports assertions from Washington and its NATO allies that Russia's intervention in Syria, its biggest military deployment abroad since the collapse of the Soviet Union, is designed to prop up Assad, who flew to Moscow on Tuesday to thank Putin for his support.

Moscow's other possible motives could be to maintain a strategic foothold in the Middle East and showcase itself as a global military power at a time when relations with the West have sunk to a post-Soviet low over the crisis in Ukraine.

Russian officials have rejected the accusations and repeatedly stressed that they are targeting Islamic State, alongside other groups they classify as Islamist terrorists. They say Moscow and the West are fighting a common enemy.

However, the pattern of the strikes in Syria suggests a different picture.

Russia's air force has flown over 780 sorties against almost 800 targets in Syria since September 30. As recently as Monday, its jets hit targets in six named locations, none of which were in areas held by Islamic State, the Reuters analysis showed.

"The main goal of these air strikes is supporting ground offensives by the Syrian army," Golts said.

The Russian defense ministry was not immediately available for comment...................

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