As the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine meet in Paris Friday to discuss Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his French counterpart François Hollande are holding private talks amid rising tensions over Russian strikes in Syria.
Putin and Hollande’s tête à tête comes a day after Russia released a new wave of bombings in Syria, saying it had hit five targets belonging to the Islamic State (IS) group, also known as ISIS or ISIL. US officials, however, believe that Moscow’s main objective is to prop up its ally President Bashar al-Assad.
A US-led coalition has been targeting IS for about a year and is carrying out near-daily airstrikes in Syria, but the Pentagon worries any run-in with Russian planes could spark a major international incident.
Turkey and its partners in the US-led coalition issued a joint statement on Friday expressing their anxiety over Russia’s air strikes.
“We express our deep concern with regard to the Russian military build-up in Syria and especially the attacks by the Russian Air Force on Hama, Homs and Idlib since yesterday which led to civilian casualties and did not target Daesh,” the statement said, using the Arabic acronym for the IS group.
Tensions have been running high at the UN where Russia and Iran, which both support Assad, have clashed with Western powers who argue that removing him from power is vital to end Syria’s bloody four-year civil war.
The IS group has taken advantage of the chaos to seize territory across Syria and Iraq, which it rules under its own brutal interpretation of Islamic law, and has recruited thousands of foreign jihadists to its cause.
Speaking ahead of his talks with Putin, Hollande said air strikes in Syria should target the IS group exclusively.
He said it was essential to ensure that «the strikes, regardless of who is carrying them out, target Daesh and not other groups».
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the UN Russia was targeting the same terror groups as the US-led coalition, including the IS group and Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate the Al-Nusra Front.
«If it acts like a terrorist, if it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist, it’s a terrorist, right?» he asked.
Putin also rejected allegations that civilians had been killed in Russian raids, describing the reports on Thursday as «information warfare».
Russia’s defence ministry said it had hit five IS targets, including a training camp and command post in northwest Idlib province.
«We have prevented IS fighters from re-establishing a command post in … Hama province that had been destroyed,» added Russian defence ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov.
Earlier Moscow said its raids had destroyed a «terrorist» headquarters, a weapons warehouse, a command centre and a car bomb factory.
A Syrian security source said the strikes had targeted Islamist rebels that fiercely oppose the IS group, and US-backed rebel group Suqur al-Jabal said Russian warplanes attacked its training camp in Idlib.
The group has received training and equipment as part of a $500-million US programme to build an anti-IS force.
The Syrian conflict, which began as protests against Assad’s government in 2011, has escalated into a multi-faceted war pitting multiple Islamist and secular groups against each other.
US Senator John McCain accused Russian warplanes of striking groups «funded and trained by our CIA», saying Moscow’s real priority was «to prop up Assad».
Turkish Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioglu said he felt «serious concern over the information that Russia’s air strikes targeted opposition positions instead of Daesh».
After meeting Sinirlioglu, US Secretary of State John Kerry said: «What is important is Russia has to not be engaged in any activities against anybody but ISIL. That’s clear.»
The strikes came as Russia presented a draft resolution to the UN Security Council that would call for consent from Damascus for attacks against the IS group in Syria.
Washington had previously blocked a similar resolution, and no date has been set for a vote on the latest one.
After weeks of Russian military build-up in Syria, Russian senators on Wednesday unanimously approved armed intervention.
It remains unclear how much of the opposition fighting Assad’s army – including the Western-backed opposition – is considered by Moscow as a potential target.
Russia’s defence ministry said Moscow had sent more than 50 military aircraft as well as marines, paratroopers and special forces into Syria.
Russia and the West are in deep disagreement over Syria, with Western powers blaming Assad for starting a war that has left more than 240,000 people dead and millions displaced.