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Activists Protest Syria Airstrikes Outside Russian Embassy in DC

Activists from the Coalition for a Democratic Syria (CDS) gathered in front of the Russian embassy in Washington on Friday to protest against the recent salvo of Russian airstrikes in Syria.

Despite unfavorable weather conditions, a dozen activists demonstrated before the embassy gate, waving Syrian flags and calling for an end to Moscow’s airstrike campaign and the establishment of a no-fly zone in Syria. Their chants were punctuated by frequent, supportive honks from passing vehicles.

In a press release announcing the protest on Thursday, the CDS wrote:

In response to Russian air strikes against civilian and armed targets in Opposition-held Homs, Hama, Latakia, Idlib, and Daraa—miles away from any ISIS-controlled territory—CDS calls upon the Russian government to abandon its hapless campaign in direct opposition to the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people. Such strikes have killed at least 36 civilians and have emboldened the Syrian regime to continue its indiscriminate attacks on the Syrian population. Russia’s actions not only directly endanger civilians but embolden the Assad regime’s atrocities against the Syrian people, making any hope of a political solution to the Syrian conflict all the more distant.

The CDS is a group of seven non-profit organizations that work to mobilize Syrian Americans in order “to effectively promote freedom, democracy and justice in Syria.” Mouaz Moustafa, a board member of CDS and Executive Director for the Syrian Emergency Task Force, said the Russian airstrikes were responsible for mounting civilian casualties, and demanded that the White House call for a no-fly zone in Syria. “If we could ask for one thing, it would be to stop aerial attacks against civilians,” Moustafa said, arguing that this would both save the lives of innocent Syrians and stop the Russian bombardment of moderate rebel opposition forces fighting ISIS.

After the Russian parliament unanimously approved the use of military force in Syria in late September, senior Kremlin official Sergey Ivanov said that “the military goal of the operation is strictly to provide air support for the [Syrian] government forces in their fight against Islamic State.” Despite this stated objective, reports surfaced shortly after the airstrikes began that Russian jets were targeting non-ISIS opposition groups, including U.S.-backed forces.

The CDS claims that at least 36 civilians have been killed by these airstrikes as of Friday. Reuters reported Sunday that residents of Homs province claimed that Russian airstrikes were targeting an area dominated by moderate opposition groups, with one volunteer worker in the town of Talbiseh saying they had experienced at least six raids that day. He added that at least five people had been killed.

Khaled Khoja, president of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, similarly accused Moscow of targeting non-ISIS positions in support of the Assad regime, while a Western-backed opposition group said on the first day of the campaign that one their top officers was killed by Russian airstrikes.

Though U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said Russia’s intervention was “doomed to fail,” and Secretary of State John Kerry expressed “grave concerns,” Moustafa wanted to see the administration adopt a more forceful approach. He argued that the Russian strikes are part of a broader trend “that allows Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and other actors, including ISIS, to take over a very important region for us,” and added that the nuclear agreement signed this past July between the P5+1 powers and Iran, “showed that the United States is okay with Iranian hegemony over the region, is okay with Russian growth, and is okay with the United States reverting its power and credibility in the region.”

Farouk Belal, a Syrian activist who came to the United States in 2006, agreed that imposing a no-fly zone in Syria would help stem the country’s devastating refugee crisis. His sentiments were echoed by fellow protester Hisham Naji, a native of Damascus who was representing the Syrian American Council and the Syrian American Medical Society at the protest. Naji called the “level of brutality and killing” inflicted by the Assad regime on the Syrian people “unparalleled,” and described the conflict as the “worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.”

The CDS is planning to stage a second protest in front of the Russian embassy on October 9th. A short clip from last week’s demonstration is embedded below.