Beirut: Russian warplanes unleashed a new wave of strikes against opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad today, as Moscow and Washington prepared for urgent talks to avoid confrontation between their forces.
It was the second straight day of Russian raids in Syria, where Moscow yesterday launched its first military engagement outside the former Soviet Union since the occupation of Afghanistan in 1979.
Russian President Vladimir Putin hit back at allegations that civilians had been killed, describing the claims as “information warfare”.
Moscow, a key backer of Assad, said the latest strikes had hit four targets linked to the Islamic State jihadist group, which controls large parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq.
It said the raids destroyed a “terrorist” headquarters, a weapons warehouse, a command centre and a car bomb factory.
But a Syrian security source said the strikes had targeted a powerful coalition of Islamist rebels, the Army of Conquest, which includes Al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate and which is fiercely opposed to IS.
The Syrian conflict, which began as an uprising against Assad’s regime in 2011, has escalated into a multi-sided civil war that has drawn thousands of jihadists from overseas.
Moscow has rejected accusations its strikes targeted moderate rebels fighting Assad.
US Senator John McCain said Russian warplanes had conducted raids on groups “funded and trained by our CIA”.
McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, argued that the move showed Moscow’s real priority was “to prop up” Assad.
He said he could “absolutely confirm” that the strikes were against the Free Syrian Army or other groups that have been armed and trained by the Central Intelligence Agency.
A US-backed rebel group, Suqur al-Jabal (Falcons of the Mountain), said Russian warplanes had fired more than 10 missiles at its training camp in Idlib province.
Rebels from the group have received training and equipment as part of a USD 500-million US programme to build up a force to combat IS.
A US-led coalition has carried out near-daily air strikes on IS in Syria for more than a year.
The coalition said it had conducted one raid yesterday in the northern province of Aleppo, destroying two excavators used by IS.
Washington complained that Moscow gave just an hour’s notice of the Russian strikes.