President Vladimir Putin comes face to face with Western leaders on Friday for the first time since Moscow launched air strikes in Syria amid a growing rift over whom they are targeting.
Putin will be in Paris for a peace summit on the Ukraine conflict, but Russia’s sudden intervention in Syria looks set to dominate as he holds talks with French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Russia insists it is bombing Islamic State jihadists and other groups, but Western nations are highly sceptical and believe it is trying to shore up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Moscow’s long-time ally.
The Russian air strikes will last for three to four months and will increase in intensity, a Putin ally and senior lawmaker warned Friday.
“There is always a risk of getting bogged down but in Moscow they’re talking about three to four months of operations,” Alexei Pushkov, the head of the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s lower house of parliament, told France’s Europe 1 radio.
Pushkov said more than 2,500 air strikes by the US-led coalition in Syria had failed to inflict significant damage on IS jihadists, 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 (another name for Islamic State) for a year, without results.
“If you do it in a more efficient way, I think you’ll see results,” he said.
Pushkov refuted suggestions from Western nations that Russian planes were mainly bombing rebel groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but not IS.
“The main target are the Daesh groups situated closest to Damascus,” Pushkov insisted.
Russia’s defence ministry said its second day of bombing had hit five IS targets, including a command post in northwest Idlib province.
– ‘It’s a terrorist, right?’ –
But a Syrian security source said the strikes had targeted Islamist rebels that fiercely oppose IS, and US-backed rebel group Suqur al-Jabal said Russian warplanes attacked its training camp in Idlib.
French President Francois Hollande, who will meet Putin first for talks, expressed his concern at the choice of targets, saying whether it was the US-led coalition or Russia carrying them out the target must be IS.
“It is Daesh which must be targeted, not other groups,” Hollande said Thursday.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted Moscow was targeting the same terror groups as the US-led coalition, including IS 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?” Lavrov said.
France opposes Russia’s support of Assad, whom Hollande accuses of instigating the chaos in Syria, where up to 250,000 people are believed to have been killed in four years of bloodshed.
Putin, on the other hand, believes Assad should be defended.
Russia also dismisses France’s assertion that it was acting in self-defence in launching its own air strikes in Syria.
With the danger of Russian and US planes colliding or even clashing in the skies above Syria growing, the Pentagon and Russian officials held what the Americans said were “cordial and professional” discussions on Thursday in a bid to avoid mishaps between the two military powers.
The US-led coalition has been targeting IS for about a year and is carrying out near-daily airstrikes in Syria.
– ‘Information warfare’ –
Tensions have been running high at the UN where Russia and Iran, which both support Assad, have clashed with Western powers that argue removing him from power is vital to end Syria’s bloody four-year civil war.
IS 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.
Putin has also rejected allegations that civilians had been killed in Russian raids, dubbing the reports “information warfare”.
The Syrian conflict, which began after protests against Assad’s regime in 2011, has escalated into a multi-sided 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”.
Meanwhile the US-led coalition said it had “not altered operations in Syria to accommodate new players on the battlefield”, and a Pentagon spokesman said it had also conducted strikes in Syria in the past 24 hours.