PARIS — With Russian warplanes bombing Syria for a third day, French President Francois Holland told President Vladimir Putin on Friday that Moscow’s airstrikes must be confined to attacking Islamic State militants, not other rebels opposing the Damascus government.
Hollande used a meeting on Ukraine to address Western concerns that Russia’s airstrikes would serve to strengthen Syrian President Bashar Assad by targeting rebels — perhaps including some aligned with the U.S. — rather than hitting IS fighters it has promised to attack.
Allies in a U.S.-led coalition that is conducting its own air campaign in Syria called on Russia to cease attacks on the Syrian opposition and to focus on fighting the Islamic State group. A joint statement by France, Turkey, the U.S. Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Britain expressed concern that Russia’s actions will “only fuel more extremism and radicalization.”
The Russian Defence Ministry released images showing that its jets hit an Islamic State-held area near its de facto capital of Raqqa in northern Syria on Thursday. It said there were 14 new missions Friday, including targets in Idlib and Hama provinces.
Hollande said he told Putin that only one of Russia’s strikes in three days hit at the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, ISIS and Daesh. The other strikes, Hollande added, were on areas controlled by the opposition.
“Russia has always been involved in Syria. Since the beginning, Russia has supported the regime of Bashar Assad and furnished him weapons, even if it goes further now,” Hollande told reporters. “But what I told Mr. Putin is that the strikes must concern Daesh, and only Daesh.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who also attended the meeting with Putin, added that the leaders “said very clearly that Daesh was the enemy that we needed to fight.”
“We also said that we needed a political solution for Syria that should take into consideration the opposition’s interests and that opposition has always had our support,” she added.
In Washington, President Barack Obama said Russia’s military campaign fails to distinguish between terrorist groups and moderate rebel forces with a legitimate interest in a negotiated end to the civil war. He called Russia’s military involvement, including airstrikes, a self-defeating exercise that will move the Syrian conflict further away from a solution.
Obama also said that Syria would not turn into a “proxy war” between the United States and Russia.
Putin left the Paris meeting without comment — and without appearing alongside the French and German leaders.
His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the leaders “talked at length about Syrian affairs,” and the Russian leader briefed Hollande about how the Russian operation is going. Putin reiterated Russia’s commitment to co-ordinate its airstrikes “with the interested parties,” Peskov added.
On Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov rejected suggestions that the airstrikes were meant to shore up support for Syria, Moscow’s main ally in the Middle East. He insisted Russia was targeting the same militant groups as the U.S.-led coalition: IS, the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front and other groups.
At the United Nations, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem welcomed the Russian intervention. He told the General Assembly that Moscow’s bombing campaign was based on his government’s request and was effective because it supports Syria’s efforts to combat terrorism.
But he also took a swipe at the U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria.
“Terrorism cannot be fought only from the air, and all of the previous operations to combat it have only served its spread and outbreak,” al-Moallem said. “Airstrikes are useless unless they are conducted in co-operation with the Syrian army, the only force in Syria that is combating terrorism.”
Russia’s airstrikes have prompted discussions in the Pentagon about whether the U.S. should use military force to protect U.S.-trained and -equipped Syrian rebels if they come under fire by the Russians. The Pentagon on Thursday had its first conversation with Russian officials in an effort to avoid any unintended U.S.-Russian confrontations.
Friday’s long-awaited meeting in Paris was intended to further the accord to end fighting in Ukraine but was overshadowed by the war that has sent millions of Syrians fleeing their homes. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have flooded into Europe.
Since Russia’s airstrikes began Wednesday, the warplanes appeared to be bombing central and northwestern Syria, strategic regions that are the gateway to Assad’s strongholds in the capital of Damascus and the coast. But rapidly shifting battle lines in the chaotic civil war can make it difficult to distinguish which groups hold what territory.
Russian news agencies quoted Defence Ministry spokesman Gen.-Maj. Igor Konashenov as saying that one attack destroyed an IS bombmaking facility in Maaret al-Numan in Idlib province. Maaret al-Numan is mostly controlled by the Nusra Front. According to activists, the target struck Friday is a Nusra Front position in the nearby town of Khan Sheikhoun.
He also said an IS command post, bunker and storage depot were hit in Hama province. Hama is mostly controlled by rebel groups that are opposed to the Islamic State group.
The focus on Moscow’s involvement in Syria has brought Putin new sway after more than a year of sanctions that weakened Russia’s economy and dented his influence in Europe.
“Putin’s economy may be in tatters, and the domestic outlook isn’t great, but his foreign policy game has been very strong lately. Why? Because he has astutely recognized the West’s priorities and linked them to his own,” said Alexander Kliment, Russia director for Eurasia Group.
Alina Polyakova, associate director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, said Putin’s actions in Syria was “part of a broader Russian foreign policy to expand its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe primarily and also to the south and to position itself as a fighter of global terrorism.”
Putin has made the first steps for bringing Russia out of its International isolation over the crisis in Ukraine, added Alex Kokcharov, a senior analyst with HIS, “but it still remains to be seen whether he succeeds.”