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Russian airstrikes hit parts of Syria with no ISIS fighters, U.S. says

Hours after Russia sharply escalated its role in the Syrian civil war by launching airstrikes, the U.S. is claiming some bombardments are targeting areas with no ISIS presence — raising questions about Moscow's motives.

'Don't listen to the Pentagon about the Russian strikes,' Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov

Russia launches attack in Syria

7 years ago
Duration 3:09
Russia's defence ministry says its jets are carrying out air strikes on Islamic State positions in Syria

Hours after Russia sharply escalated its role in the Syrian civil war by launching airstrikes, the U.S. claimed some bombardments are targeting areas with no ISIS presence — raising questions about Moscow's motives.

Russia launched airstrikes Wednesday in Syria targeting what it said were Islamic State positions, after weeks of upping the stakes by deploying aircraft, marines, air defence systems and drones to the war-torn country. 

The same day, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made firm pronouncements at the United Nations Security Council about the need for the world to unite in the fight against terrorist groups. 

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry responded by announcing that the United States was prepared to welcome Russian actions if they are directed at the Islamic State group and al-Qaeda, and promising that the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS would "dramatically accelerate our efforts."

Russia announced Wednesday that its jets had bombed targets near Homs, Syria, belonging to Islamic State extremists, but the U.S. says it appears some planes also struck areas with no ISIS presence. (Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters)

"We would have grave concerns should Russia strike areas where ISIL-affiliated targets are not operating," Kerry said, using one of several acronyms for the Islamic State.

We have been exposed to a wide range of weapons over the last five years, but what happened today was absolutely the most violent and ferocious, and the most comprehensive in the northern Homs countryside.- Syrian doctor, speaking on condition of anonymity

Meanwhile, jets flying at higher altitudes than the Syrian air force emitted no noise to alert the people below in Homs province to raids reported to have killed at least 33 civilians, including children, according to a Reuters report.

"We have been exposed to a wide range of weapons over the last five years, but what happened today was absolutely the most violent and ferocious, and the most comprehensive in the northern Homs countryside," said a doctor in the town of Rastan, speaking from one of the areas targeted by the jets.

"As I speak to you now the mosque minarets are warning of planes in the sky and warning that gatherings of people should disperse," he told Reuters, declining to be named out of fear for his safety.

There are concerns Russia's main intent is not to fight Islamic State militants but to protect its longtime ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.​

Those appeared to bear out Wednesday evening, as U.S. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said the Russian airstrikes seem to have hit areas that do not include Islamic State fighters.

"It does appear they were in in areas where there probably were not ISIL forces," Carter said. "The result of this kind of action will inevitably simply be to inflame the civil war in Syria."

Some U.S.-backed rebel groups claimed they were hit by Russian airstrikes but those claims could not be confirmed.

Carter also said he couldn't confirm reports that the Russian strikes may have hit civilians, but said, "if it occurred, it's yet another reason why this kind of Russian action can and will backfire very badly on Russia."

'Doomed to fail'

Carter's comments triggered a dismissive response from Lavrov, who told reporters flatly, "Don't listen to the Pentagon about the Russian strikes" and referred them to the Russian Defence Ministry website.

U.S. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter says Russia's actions will 'backfire very badly.' (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

A key unanswered question is what the U.S. will do if the Russian airstrikes target moderate Syrian rebel groups working with the Western-led coalition in the fight against the Islamic State. Asked directly if the coalition would protect the U.S.-trained or -aligned groups, Carter did not answer.

Instead, Carter said the strikes highlight a contradiction in Russia's approach. He said the Russians should not be supporting the Assad government, and their military moves are "doomed to fail."

Addressing concerns that Russian and U.S. military efforts could run into each other, Kerry said he and Lavrov agreed that U.S. and Russian militaries should hold talks as soon as feasible, possibly on Thursday, to ensure the countries' forces do not come into conflict.

A U.S. official said the meeting would involve a U.S. military officer and a senior Defence Department civilian, and could be either by secure video teleconference or in person. The details are still being worked out.

UN resolution

Earlier Wednesday afternoon, Lavrov told foreign ministers of world powers that his country was circulating a draft UN Security Council resolution to augment efforts in Syria.

In remarks to the Security Council, Lavrov stressed a "maximally effective fight" and listed countries with a key role to play in resolving the chaos in Syria, including Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar , the U.S. and even China.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed Carter's comments, saying 'don't listen to the Pentagon about the Russian strikes.' (Reuters)

"What we require are collective agreed approaches backed by Security Council," said Lavrov, whose country holds the council's rotating presidency this month. 

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told the council his country strongly endorses Russia's latest moves and called French and other airstrikes in Syria that aren't co-ordinated with his government a "blatant contravention" of international law.

Assad himself also welcomed Wednesday's decision by Russia to send troops to his war-torn country, saying the military support from Moscow is the result of a Damascus request.

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.

With files from The Associated Press and Reuters

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