Moscow has admitted that not all Russian air strikes in Syria have been targeting the ISIS militant group, amid concerns over reports that US-backed opposition forces are also being hit.
Russian jets began bombing territories held by Syrian opposition forces in the Hama, Homs and Idlib on Wednesday just hours after Russian lawmakers unanimously approved military action in Syria.
Although Russia initially claimed its air strikes are being targeted against the ISIS militant group, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissing rumours that the air strikes were targeting opposition forces as “unfounded,” the US raised concerns that the air strikes were aimed at moderate opposition groups fighting against Bashar al Assad’s regime.
The Russian Defence Ministry said eight ISIS targets were destroyed in a total of 20 air strikes on the Hama and Homs governorates on Wednesday. However, Lavrov told reporters on Thursday that other groups besides ISIS were also being targeted by the air strikes.
"I would recall that we always were saying that we are going to fight ISIL [ISIS] and other terrorist groups, this is the same position that the Americans are taking, the representatives of the coalition command have always been saying that their targets are ISIL [ISIS], al Nusra and other terrorist groups," Lavrov said.
“If it looks like a terrorist, if it acts like a terrorist, if it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist, it's a terrorist, right? This is basically our position, as well. We see eye-to-eye with the coalition on this one."
Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, also confirmed on Thursday that other groups were also targeted.
"The goal [of the Russian operation] is to help the Syrian armed forces in their weak spots in the fight against ISIS and other terrorist and extremist groups," he was quoted saying in Russian media.
“These organisations are well known and the targets are chosen in coordination with the armed forces of Syria.”
The admission comes after both US officials and Syrian opposition activists accused Russia of extending their mission to hit non-ISIS targets, with US Defense Secretary Ash Carter saying the air strikes took place where there were probably no ISIS militants.
Jamil al Saleh, a commander for the US-backed rebel group Tajamaa al Ezza (Dignity Gathering), an affiliate of the Free Syrian Army, also told reporters his group was targeted by Russian air strikes in Hama on Wednesday.
Another US-backed opposition commander, Hassan Haj Ali, said that his Liwa Suqour al-Jabal group was targeted by 20 Russian missiles in the town of Kafr Nabl, in the northern Idlib governorate.
“Russia is challenging everyone and saying there is no alternative to Bashar,” the former Syrian army captain who defected to the opposition during the revolution told Reuters.
It was also reported on Thursday that Russian air strikes targeted the Fatah Army, a coalition of Syrian opposition groups including the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, in the Jisr al Shughur and Jabal al Zawiya districts of Idlib, an unnamed regime source was quoted saying by the Agence France-Presse news agency.
Further concern was raised when Syria’s main political opposition leader Khaled Khoja claimed Wednesday’s assault on the towns of Talbisa, Rastan, Zaafaraniya and Makramiya and Ghanto in the suburbs of Homs killed at least 36 civilians, including five children.
1/All The targets in today's Russian air raid over Northern #Homs were civilians .36 civilian has been killed in ISIL & Al Qaida free areas.
— خالد خوجة (@Khaledkhoja) September 30, 2015
On Thursday, US Senator John McCain, who heads the Senate’s Armed Services Committee, accused Russia of hitting CIA-backed opposition forces instead of ISIS militants, a move which could drag the two superpowers into direct conflict with one another.
"I can absolutely confirm to you that they were strikes against our Free Syrian Army recruits that have been armed and trained by the CIA because we have communications with people there," McCain said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, on the other hand, denied air strikes were targeting the Free Syrian Army. “We don’t consider Free Syrian Army a terrorist group, and believe [it] should be part of the political process,” he told reporters in New York
Putin’s spokesperson Peskov, however, on Wednesday questioned the existence of the Free Syrian Army, saying “does it exist, the Free Syrian Army? Haven’t most of them switched to ISIS group? It existed but whether it does now nobody knows for sure, it’s a relative concept.”
Russia began building up its military presence in Syria’s coastal governorate of Latakia - a stronghold of the regime and Assad’s minority Alawite sect - where they have reportedly deployed military experts and aid to assist the Assad regime.
It has also been reported that Russia is expanding its only Mediterranean naval base in Tartus and is building an airstrip in Latakia’s Bassel al Assad airport, making it the biggest foreign mission launched by Moscow since the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
Following the commencing of Russian air strikes, Kerry and Lavrov met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York on Wednesday and agreed to launch "de-confliction" talks to end the crisis.
In recent weeks, US and Russian officials have repeatedly voiced the need for coordination between the two superpowers in their separate military operations in Syria to avoid directly clashing with each other.
The US has already been leading a coalition of over 60 nations against ISIS for a year, but key differences over a new transition phase aimed at ending the four-and-a-half-year-old Syrian conflict have prevented Russia from joining the coalition.
While the US is adamant that Assad must not be included in the solution process, Russia insists the embattled regime leader should play a role in the transition phase. Washington has warned Moscow that attempts to support the Assad regime will be counterproductive and will only fuel the rise of militant groups like ISIS.
However, in an apparent display of the US softening its language regarding the Assad regime, Kerry recently implied Assad’s leaving office does not necessarily have to be immediate. Russia has also said Assad is ready to share power with a “healthy opposition.”
Speaking outside of Moscow on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters, “we hope that he [Assad] will be active and flexible and ready to compromise in the name of his country and his people.”
After meeting with Lavrov in Moscow in August, Syrian National Coalition head Khaled Khoja stated that the Russian leadership isn't "clinging" to Bashar al Assad, but rather is aiming to preserve Syria's territorial integrity, adding that the opposition "fully agrees that it is necessary to preserve Syrian statehood and state institutions in the country."
However, the meeting did not clarify whether Khoja’s statements signaled a shift in Russia’s Syrian policies.
To date, the war in Syria has killed an estimated quarter of a million people with most of the casualties occurring as a result of regime air strikes and barrel bombings of civilian areas. As much as half the country’s population has also been displaced, both internally and externally.