The US and Russia are set to engage in urgent military talks after Russian fighter jets began bombing opposition forces in Syria on Wednesday, just hours after lawmakers in the upper house of parliament in Moscow unanimously approved military action in Syria.
According to Agence France Presse, the US was informed only one hour prior to the beginning of Russian air strikes in Syria.
Following the incident, US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York and agreed to launch "de-confliction" talks to end the crisis.
"We agreed on the imperative of as soon as possible - perhaps even as soon as tomorrow, but as soon as possible - having a military to military de-confliction discussion," Kerry said.
Although Russia claims its air strikes are being targeted against the ISIS militant group, the US has raised concerns that Wednesday’s air strikes in the cities of Homs and Hama were aimed at moderate opposition groups fighting against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the air strikes took place where there were probably no ISIS forces and warned Russian intervention would only "backfire" and would be like “pouring gasoline on the fire.”
“Russia states an intent to fight Isil on the one hand, and to support the Bashar al-Assad regime on the other. Fighting Isil without pursuing a parallel political transition only risks escalating the civil war in Syria – and with it, the very extremism and instability that Moscow claims to be concerned about and aspire to fighting,” Carter told reporters, referring to ISIS with its alternative acronym.
Kerry also said there would be “grave concern” in Washington if it is discovered that the Russian air strikes were not targeting ISIS or the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.
Despite the areas hit on Wednesday being known to be hubs for the Free Syrian Army, the Russian Defence Ministry said a total of 20 “pre-emptive” airstrikes were carried out on the outskirts of Homs in the towns of Talbisa, Rastan, Zaafaraniya and Makramiya, destroying eight ISIS positions.
Syria’s main political opposition leader Khaled Khoja, meanwhile, said 36 civilians were killed in the assault, 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
— خالد خوجة (@Khaledkhoja) September 30, 2015
Jamil al-Saleh, a commander for the US-backed rebel group Tajamaa al-Ezza (Dignity Gathering) was also quoted by the Financial Times as saying that his group was targeted in Hama.
“Each strike was 10 rockets, done by four planes and covered by one reconnaissance jet. The first strike hit the Latamneh area and had mostly civilian casualties. The second hit our headquarters near the front. There was heavy damage and eight wounded but none of our fighters were killed,” he said.
“I want the world to know that the Russians appear to be here not to fight ISIS but to help the Assad regime exterminate the Free Syrian Army, destroy the popular revolution, and kill its civilians — all for the sake of strengthening the regime,” he added.
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.
Russia has been building up its military presence in Syria’s coastal governorates of Latakia and Tartus, 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.
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.”
Putin also said that the operation would be limited to airstrikes and that there would be “no Russian boots on the ground."
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, however, expressed his concern at Russia’s operation, saying "I'm especially concerned because there has been no real effort by the Russian side to de-conflict the Russian air strikes in Syria."
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 airstrikes and barrel bombings of civilian areas. As much as half the country’s population has also been displaced, both internally and externally.