MOSCOW — Officials in the US and elsewhere say Russian airstrikes carried out in Syria Wednesday did not attack the Islamic State terror group, as Moscow claims, but actually targeted other rebel groups.
President Vladimir Putin called the series of strikes in Homs and elsewhere a preemptive strike against 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.”
US Defense Secretary Ashton 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 Bashar 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 UN 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.
Alexander Orlov, the Russian ambassador to France, said Moscow’s intervention came only after a year of airstrikes by the US and its partners failed to dislodge Islamic State extremists, and predicted that Syria could be ready for “free elections” within a year.
“There has been a certain war of disinformation for some time and everyone is trying to discredit each other,” Orlov said. “We are acting transparently.”
Orlov said Wednesday’s targets were installations for Islamic State and the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. Orlov told France Info radio the planes were acting as air support for Syrian ground troops.
“We see that this coalition has been operating in Syria for a year, 5,000 airstrikes have been carried out, and Islamic State is still there,” Orlov said.
With American and allied airstrikes daily, and now Russian warplanes in the Syrian airspace, the war is taking on a dangerous new dimension. Orlov said Russian officials warned the Americans “via confidential channels” of where they planned to strike. He also noted a coordination center was being set up in Baghdad that would include Syrians, Iraqis, Iranians and Russians — and any other country that wants to participate.
US 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-Qaeda affiliates, but would have “grave concerns” if it conducted strikes against other groups.
The US and Russia both agree on the need to fight the Islamic State but not about what to do with Assad, a longtime ally of Moscow. 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 UN General Assembly in New York, where they discussed Moscow’s military buildup in the country. Obama had said the US 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 UN 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 US-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 US “would have grave concerns should Russia strike areas where ISIL and al-Qaeda 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 US 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.
The Russian defense ministry released footage of the airstrikes carried out by the country’s air force on Wednesday.
IS controls parts of Homs province, including the ancient town of Palmyra. Homs also has positions run by al-Qaeda’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 UN 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.”
US State Department spokesman John Kirby said a Russian official in Baghdad had told US 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 US aircraft avoid Syrian airspace during those missions Wednesday. Kirby didn’t say whether the US agreed to that request.
The US-led coalition will continue missions over Iraq and Syria, Kirby added.
Putin insisted Russia’s role in Syrian army operations will be limited and it will not send ground troops to Syria.
“We certainly are not going to plunge head-on into this conflict,” he said.