MOSCOW –– Russia launched air strikes in Syria today in the Kremlin’s biggest Middle East intervention in decades, but Moscow’s assertion that it had hit Islamic State was immediately disputed by the United States and rebels on the ground.
The air strikes plunged the four-year-old civil war in Syria into a volatile new phase as President Vladimir Putin moved forcefully to assert Russian influence in the unstable region.
The attacks also raised the dangerous specter of Washington and Moscow running air strikes concurrently and in the same region, but without coordination.
US Defence Secretary Ash Carter said he had directed American military officials to meet with their Russian counterparts “as soon as possible” to discuss ways to make sure they do not come into conflict.
The United States said a Russian official in Baghdad warned it to keep American aircraft that have been pressing a daily bombing campaign against Islamic State positions to stay out of Syrian airspace during Moscow’s air strikes. But the United States continued its air operations, saying it targeted Islamic State near the Syrian city of Aleppo.
Putin said he was striking against Islamic State and helping Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, long Russia’s closest ally in the region, in this aim.
But Washington is concerned that Moscow is more interested in propping up Assad, who the United States has long held should leave office, than in beating Islamic State. Assad’s opponents in the brutal civil war include rebel groups that oppose both him and Islamic State and that are supported by the United States and other Western countries.
Russia’s Ministry of Defence said it carried out about 20 flights over Syria, hitting eight Islamic State targets and destroying an Islamic State command post and an operations centre in a mountainous area, Russian agencies reported.
Syrians living in rebel-held areas of Homs province said the violence unleashed by the Russian Air Force unleashed a whole new level of devastation on their towns. Jets flying at higher altitudes than the Syrian Air Force emitted no noise to alert the people below to raids reported to have killed at least 33 civilians, including children.
Moscow’s intervention means the conflict in Syria has been transformed in a few months from a proxy war, in which outside powers were arming and training mostly Syrians to fight each other, to an international conflict in which the world’s main military powers except China are directly involved in fighting.
Russia joined the United States and its Arab allies, Turkey, France, Iran and Israel in direct intervention, with Britain expected to join soon, if it gets parliamentary approval.
Carter said of the strikes: “It does appear that they were in areas where there probably were not ISIL forces, and that is precisely one of the problems with this whole approach.”
Notice of the attack came from a Russian official in Baghdad who asked the United States to avoid Syrian airspace during the mission, US State Department spokesman John Kirby said.
Moscow’s move meant that warplanes from both the United States and Russia will be sharing the skies above Syria.
“In this heated situation there is a great danger of further misunderstandings,” Germany’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier said at the United Nations.
Reflecting growing tension between the big powers, US Secretary John Kerry phoned his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov early today to tell him the United States regarded the strikes as dangerous, an American official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Russia was moving to “ramp up” support for Assad, adding: “They’ve made a significant military investment now in further propping him up.”