In a bold escalation of its involvement in Syria, Russia has launched air strikes in the war-torn country that it says targeted Islamic State (IS) militants, while Western officials suggest the offensive may be aimed at other opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said on September 30 Russian warplanes flew some 20 sorties and "delivered targeted air strikes on eight facilities" held by IS forces in Syria.
He said the strikes hit positions, vehicles, and warehouses that Moscow believes belong to IS militants.
But the U.S. military and a Western-aligned Syrian opposition group said the strikes did not hit IS targets, but rather hit areas held by moderate groups fighting Assad and aligned with the West.
The Syrian National Coalition said the strikes killed 36 civilians in the Homs province, including five children, a claim Russia immediately denied.
The military intervention is Moscow's first outside the former Soviet Union since its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. It was launched just hours after Russia's upper house of parliament voted unanimously to authorize President Vladimir Putin to use military force in Syria.
"The only right way to fight international terrorism -- and it is gangs of international terrorists that are fighting in Syria and in neighboring countries -- is to act preemptively, to fight and destroy militants and terrorists on the territories that they already occupied, not wait for them to come to our house," Putin told a September 30 meeting of government officials.
Washington and Moscow have sparred over how to resolve the four-year-old conflict. The United States says Assad has committed atrocities against his own people and cannot be part of a postwar government. Russia insists Assad's forces are the best chance to defeat the militants who have seized swaths of territory in Syria and neighboring Iraq.
The Russian military action drew rebukes from U.S. officials, who have voiced concern that Moscow is seeking to bolster Assad under the guise of combating terrorism. They have said that Russian operations could lead to potential conflicts with a U.S.-led coalition carrying out its own air campaign against IS targets.
AFP quoted a U.S. official as saying that Secretary of State John Kerry complained to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that the Russian move "runs counter" to the two countries' efforts to "de-conflict" in Syria and were "not helpful."
Kerry told a United Nations Security Council meeting just hours after Russian jets began hitting targets that Washington would welcome Russia's "genuine commitment to defeat" IS forces but that "we must not and will not be confused in our fight against ISIL with support for Assad."
"We have also made clear we would have grave concerns should Russia should strike areas where ISIL and Al-Qaeda-affiliated targets are not operating," Kerry said.
"Strikes of that kind would question Russia's real intentions fighting ISIL or protecting the Assad regime," he added.
A U.S. defense official contradicted Russia's characterization of the operation, telling Reuters that Syrian opposition forces -- not IS militants -- were targeted in the bombing raids.
"We have not seen any strikes against ISIL. What we have seen is strikes against [the] Syrian opposition," the official said, using a common acronym for the group.
Syrian state television named several areas targeted by Russian air strikes, including in Homs Province and Hama Province, north of Homs.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said that Russia's actions in Syria risked "pouring gasoline on a fire" in the war in Syria and were "doomed to failure."
He also said the Russian air strikes appeared to target areas where IS militants "probably" were not located, an assertion consistent with claims made by Western-backed Syrian political opposition groups, including the Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition.
Some Western analysts say the area around Homs is not held by IS militants.
Thomas Pierret of the University of Edinburgh told RFE/RL the "northern Homs countryside is home to various factions from the Free Syrian Army to Jabhat al-Nusra. For sure, there is no Islamic State there and, overall, the [groups there] are rather moderate."
Khaled Khoja, the head of the Western-backed Syrian political opposition, wrote on Twitter that at least 36 civilians were killed in the Russian bombing raids, which he said targeted areas where IS and Al-Qaeda-linked forces are not present.
Khoja, head of the Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition, is currently in New York for the UN General Assembly. "The targeted areas in today's Russian air raid in Homs were those areas which fought [IS forces] and defeated it a year ago," Khoja added.
A spokeswoman for Russia's Foreign Ministry called Khoja's claim that the strikes killed 36 civilians "false" and part of an "information war."
She said there was little difference between the Russian strikes and French air strikes that earlier in the day were reported to have killed 30, including 12 child soldiers.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, meanwhile, told reporters at the United Nations in New York that there "were indications that the Russian strikes did not target Daesh," using an alternate name for the IS group.
Any air strikes must target IS forces and other "terrorist groups, not civilians or the moderate opposition," Fabius said.
A U.S.-backed Syrian rebel group known as Tajamu Alezzah wrote on Twitter that its positions in the central city of Latamna in the province of Hama were hit in the air strikes, though it did not immediately provide details.
Assad's forces also purportedly carried out air strikes as well. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 27 civilians were killed and dozens of others wounded on September 30 in Homs Province in raids by Syrian jets.
Russia's 'Holy War'
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters at the United Nations that the West and Syrian opposition were distorting the facts by suggesting that the Russia jets hit targets other than IS militants.
Russia has for weeks been building up its military presence in Syria, where it has supported Assad in the more-than-four-year-long civil war. Government forces are fighting against IS militants, other Islamic extremists, and rebel groups that in some cases are Western-backed.
The United States and other Western governments suspect Russia's targets could include Western-backed rebels opposing Assad, whom Washington accuses of committing atrocities against his own people.
The United States has insisted that Assad cannot be part of a postwar government in Syria, a position Russia has vehemently opposed.
The attacks came after Russia's upper house of parliament voted unanimously to authorize Putin to use the military in Syria -- a requirement under Russian law and part of a campaign by Moscow to show that its involvement in Syria is legal and justified.
Lavrov told the UN Security Council on September 30 that Moscow was prepared to open "standing channels of communication" with the U.S.-led coalition bombing IS militants in Syria.
"We have informed the authorities of the United States and other members of the coalition created by the Americans and are ready to forge standing channels of communication to ensure the maximum effective fight against the terrorist groups," Lavrov said.
In a third meeting this week between Lavrov and Kerry at the UN late September 30, the two ministers agreed that talks between their countries' respective military arms should begin as soon as October 1 to avoid any unintended clashes.
The Kremlin-allied Russian Orthodox Church signaled strong support for the air strikes, with a senior church official saying the battle against terrorism was a "holy fight."
A U.S. official told Reuters on condition of anonymity that Moscow gave the United States just one hour of advance notice of its operations.
And U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters that a Russian official in Baghdad requested U.S. aircraft avoid Syrian airspace during the missions.
But Kirby said that "the U.S.-led coalition will continue to fly missions over Iraq and Syria as planned," rejecting any Russian effort to limit coalition activities.
Reuters quoted an unidentified U.S. official as saying that the United States carried out an air strike on September 30 against IS targets in the vicinity of the Syrian city of Aleppo.
Putin's chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, said the objective of the parliament vote was to authorize the use of the Russian Air Force alone and that "the use of armed forces in a ground operation is ruled out."
Ivanov said the "most important" driver in the decision to step up Russia's involvement was the thousands of Russians and citizens of other ex-Soviet states joining the militants in Syria and Iraq and the security threat they might pose when they returned home.
He also said the vote followed a request by Assad for military assistance in fighting IS.
The Syrian presidency confirmed on September 30 that it had asked for Russian military assistance.
Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama clashed over Syria in speeches at the United Nations on September 28, with Obama saying that Washington was willing to work with Russia to bring an end to the conflict but that any resolution to the war must include a "managed transition" away from Assad.
Putin called it "an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate" with Assad's government to combat IS militants, who have captured large parts of both Syria and Iraq.
A U.S.-led coalition has already been bombing IS in Iraq and Syria, but Russia has been highly critical of the campaign, saying it has only yielded meager results so far.
The coalition conducted 26 air strikes against IS in Iraq on September 29, as well as four air strikes on the militant group in Syria.