Russian jets carried out a second day of air strikes in Syria yesterday, with American senator John McCain claiming that the targets included US-backed rebels.
The attacks came as concerns grew about a conflict that has now drawn in warplanes from the world’s two most powerful militaries.
Russian president Vladimir Putin denied reports that civilians were killed in any Russian air strikes. “We are ready for such information attacks,” he said in a live broadcast from the Kremlin. “The first reports of civilian casualties came even before our jets took off.”
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said his country and the US-coalition “see eye-to-eye” on the targets of the fight in Syria and that the first military contact between Russia and the US would take place “very, very soon”. He added: “We believe that our position is absolutely in line with international law.”
Russian jets appeared to be primarily bombing central and north-western Syria, strategic areas that are the gateway to president Bashar Assad’s strongholds in the capital Damascus and on the coast.
The United States and its allies fear that Russia, which has backed the Assad family since the current leader’s father was in power, is using the air campaign as a pretext to shore up dwindling defences – not go after Islamic State (IS).
Mr McCain said yesterday that some Russian air strikes were aimed at CIA-backed groups fighting the Assad regime, echoing claims from activists.
The former presidential candidate, who chairs the Senate armed services committee, told CNN he “can absolutely confirm to you that they were strikes against our Free Syrian Army, or groups that have been armed and trained by the CIA, because we have communications with people there”.
The Russian defence ministry said its aircraft damaged or destroyed 12 targets in Syria belonging to IS, including a command centre and two ammunition depots. Officials acknowledged, however, that other unidentified groups were being targeted as well.
The ministry said Su-25M and Su-25 jets flew 20 sorties between Wednesday and yesterday morning and insisted that civilian areas were not targeted.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said air strikes in the central province of Hama yesterday hit locations of the US-backed rebel group Tajamu Alezzah, as well as the province of Idlib, which is controlled by a coalition of rebel groups that includes al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra. The group said Tajamu Alezzah was also targeted on Wednesday.
Russia’s air strikes in support of Syrian forces began on Wednesday in what Mr Putin called a pre-emptive strike against militants. His spokesman said Russia was going after IS militants as well as a “list” of other groups. “These organisations are well known and the targets are chosen in co-ordination with the armed forces of Syria,” he said.
Hundreds of Muslim Chechens and Central Asians have joined the fighting in Syria since the early days of the civil war, and many form the backbone of al-Nusra and IS. Some of those Chechens are part of the coalition that controls Idlib.
Mr Putin has said Russia would be fighting “gangs of international terrorists”. The Syrian government considers all rebel groups terrorists.