MOSCOW — Russia launched airstrikes Wednesday in Syria, sharply escalating Moscow’s role in the conflict but also raising questions about whether its intent is fighting Islamic State militants or protecting longtime ally, President Bashar Assad.
President Vladimir Putin called it a pre-emptive strike against the militants, and the Russian Defense Ministry said its warplanes targeted and destroyed eight positions belonging to extremists from the IS group, also known as ISIL or ISIS. It did not give specific locations.
But French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told lawmakers in Paris: “Curiously, they didn’t hit Islamic State. I will let you draw a certain number of conclusions yourselves.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter also said the Russians appeared to have targeted areas that did not include IS militants and complained Moscow did not use formal channels to give advance notice of its airstrikes to Washington, which is conducting its own airstrikes in Syria against the Islamic State group.
He said the Russians should not be supporting the Assad government and their military moves are “doomed to fail.”
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed charges that Russian airstrikes in Syria targeted positions of the Syrian opposition. Speaking to journalists on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, he said that the Russian Air Forces are cooperating with the Syrian pro-government military to target “exclusively” Islamic State targets.
“Rumors that the targets of these strikes were not IS positions were groundless,” he stressed, adding that the Russian Defense Ministry has clearly stated on its website the targets and objectives of Russian airstrikes in Syria.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington was prepared to welcome Russian military action in Syria as long as it is directed against IS and other al-Qaida affiliates, but would have “grave concerns” if it conducted strikes against other groups.
The U.S. and Russia both agree on the need to fight the Islamic State but not about what to do with Assad. The Syrian civil war, which grew out of an uprising against Assad, has killed more than 250,000 people since March 2011 and sent millions of refugees fleeing to other countries in the Middle East and Europe.
Russia’s first airstrikes in Syria came after Putin met Monday with President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, where they discussed Moscow’s military buildup in the country. Obama had said the U.S. and Russia could work together on a political transition, but only if the result was Assad’s departure.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the Russians’ new action “calls into question their strategy, because when President Putin and President Obama had the opportunity to meet at the U.N. earlier this week, much of their discussion was focused on the need for a political transition inside Syria.”
Putin, who is Assad’s most powerful backer, justified the airstrikes as a move to not only stabilize Syria, but also help stifle global terrorism.
“If they (militants) succeed in Syria, they will return to their home country, and they will come to Russia, too,” Putin said at a government session.
According to a statement from Assad’s office, the Syrian leader had asked Putin for the support.
Kerry said Russian operations must not support Assad or interfere with those of the U.S.-led coalition that is already attacking Islamic State targets. He called for an urgent start to military-to-military talks to prevent any kind of conflict between Russia and the coalition.
“If Russia’s recent actions and those now ongoing reflect a genuine commitment to defeat (the Islamic State) then we are prepared to welcome those efforts and to find a way to de-conflict our operations and thereby multiply military pressure on ISIL and affiliated groups,” Kerry said. “But we must not and will not be confused in our fight against ISIL with support for Assad.”
He added that the U.S. “would have grave concerns should Russia strike areas where ISIL and al-Qaida affiliated targets are not operating,” he said. “Strikes of that kind would question Russia’s real intentions fighting ISIL or protecting the Assad regime.”
Russia targeted positions, vehicles and warehouses believed to belong to IS militants, Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov told Russian news agencies.
A senior U.S. official, however, said the airstrikes don’t appear to be targeting IS, because the militants aren’t in the western part of Syria, beyond Homs, where the strikes were directed. It appears the strikes were directed against opposition groups fighting Assad, according to the official, who wasn’t authorized to discuss the Russian airstrikes publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Syrian state TV quoted an unidentified military official as saying that Russian planes targeted IS positions in central Syria, including the areas of Rastan and Talbiseh, and areas near the town of Salamiyeh in Hama province.
IS controls parts of Homs province, including the ancient town of Palmyra. Homs also has positions run by al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, known as the Nusra Front. Both groups have fighters from the former Soviet Union, including Chechens.
Genevieve Casagrande of the Institute of the Study of War, said the airstrike on Talbiseh, “did not hit ISIS militants and rather resulted in a large number of civilian casualties.”
“If confirmed, the airstrike would signal Russian intent to assist in the Syrian regime’s war effort at large, rather than securing the regime’s coastal heartland of Latakia and Tartous,” she said.
Khaled Khoja, head of the Syrian National Council opposition group, said at the U.N. that Russian airstrikes in four areas, including Talbiseh, killed 36 civilians, with five children among the dead. The claim could not be independently verified.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said claims of civilian casualties were part of an “information war ... which, it appears, someone prepared well.”
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said a Russian official in Baghdad had told U.S. Embassy personnel in the Iraqi capital that Russian military aircraft would shortly begin flying anti-IS missions in Syria. The Russian official also asked that U.S. aircraft avoid Syrian airspace during those missions Wednesday. Kirby didn’t say whether the U.S. agreed to that request.
The U.S.-led coalition will continue missions over Iraq and Syria, Kirby added.
The U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity said there were no conflicts with the Russian strikes, and they had no impact on coalition missions, primarily in the north and east.
Earlier Wednesday, Russian lawmakers voted unanimously to allow Putin to order the airstrikes in Syria, where Russia has deployed fighter jets and other weapons in recent weeks. The Federation Council, the upper chamber of the parliament, discussed Putin’s request for the authorization behind closed doors in a debate notable for its speed.
Under the constitution, Putin had to request parliamentary approval for any use of Russian troops abroad. The last time he did so was before Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014.
Putin insisted Russia will not send ground troops to Syria and that its role in Syrian army operations will be limited.
“We certainly are not going to plunge head-on into this conflict,” he said. “First, we will be supporting the Syrian army purely in its legitimate fight with terrorist groups. Second, this will be air support without any participation in the ground operations.”
Putin also said he expects Assad to talk with the Syrian opposition about a political settlement, but added he was referring to what he described as a “healthy” opposition group.
Putin and other officials have said Russia was providing weapons and training to Assad’s army to help it combat IS. Russian navy transport vessels have been shuttling back and forth for weeks to ferry troops, weapons and supplies to an air base near the coastal city of Latakia. IHS Jane’s, a leading defense research group, said last week that satellite images of the base showed 28 jets, including Su-30 multi-role fighters, Su-25 ground attack jets, Su-24 bombers and possibly Ka-52 helicopter gunships.
Worried by the threat of Russian and U.S. jets clashing inadvertently over Syrian skies, Washington agreed to talk to Moscow on how to “deconflict” their military actions. Last week, Carter had a 50-minute phone call with his Russian counterpart — the first such military-to-military discussion between the two countries in more than a year.
Putin’s strategy in Syria could bring bloody blowback at home, said Andrew Weiss, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Putin has “basically created a giant recruiting poster for the global jihadist movement. He’s put Moscow on the map for jihadist groups who have been operating in Syria,” Weiss said.