Russia said Friday it had bombed the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa for the first time as President Vladimir Putin faced mounting criticism from Western and Gulf leaders over his military campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Moscow countered that it had hit “an IS training camp” and a command post in air strikes on Thursday near the jihadist bastion as the US-led coalition urged Russia to stop attacking Syrian opposition forces, saying it risked escalating the four-year civil war.
“These military actions constitute a further escalation and will only fuel more extremism and radicalization,” seven countries including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States said in a statement.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Thursday that Moscow had targeted IS, the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front and “other terrorist groups.”
Russia’s Defense Ministry said its latest air strikes had put an “IS command point out of action. The infrastructure used to train terrorists was completely destroyed,” the ministry said.
Putin held talks in Paris on Friday with the leaders of France and Germany, the first time he has met Western leaders since Russia began its dramatic intervention in the Syrian conflict.
Western nations including France say they are prepared to discuss a political solution with elements of the Syrian regime, but insist Assad must leave power. Putin, on the other hand, says Assad — Russia’s long-term ally — should stay.
Ahead of the talks, a Putin ally and senior lawmaker said the campaign of Russian air strikes will last for three to four months and will increase in intensity.
Pushkov said more than 2,500 air strikes by the US-led coalition in Syria had failed to inflict significant damage on IS, but Russia’s campaign would be more intensive.
“I think it’s the intensity that is important. The US-led coalition has pretended to bomb Daesh (an Arabic acronym for Islamic State) for a year, without results.
With the danger growing that Russian and US planes could collide or even engage militarily in the skies above Syria, the Pentagon and Russian officials held what the Americans said were “cordial and professional” discussions on Thursday in a bid to avoid mishaps.
At worst, if Russia bombs rebels trained by the U.S. and American fighter jets intercede to protect the Syrians, the exchange could trigger an all-out confrontation with Russia -- a potential disaster the administration would like to avoid.
Fueling the concerns is the fact that Russia has aircraft in Syria with air-to-air combat capacity, even though ISIS has no air force and the only aircraft in the skies belong to U.S.-led coalition or the Syrian government.
Russia's defense ministry said that over the past 24 hours it had damaged or destroyed 12 targets in Syria belonging to the ISIS fighters, including a command center and ammunition depots. A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, Col. Steve Warren, said he had no indication that the Russians had hit Islamic State targets.