The Russian defense ministry said Wednesday that the country’s military had launched airstrikes in Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). But U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter suggested the strikes took place in areas where ISIL "is not present," calling Russia's actions "ill-advised" and saying Moscow's approach was "doomed to failure."
The Russian defense ministry said it struck eight ISIL targets on Wednesday and also published video of the strikes that appeared to show targets being hit. But the head of the National Coalition, Syria's main opposition group, said 36 civilians were killed as a result of Russian strikes.
"All of the casualties were civilians. No one from military forces," Khaled Khoja told AFP.
One U.S. official said the airstrikes don't appear to be targeting ISIL, because the armed group isn't in the western part of the country, beyond Homs, where the strikes were directed.
It appears the strikes were directed against opposition groups fighting against Assad, according to the official, who wasn't authorized to discuss the Russian airstrikes publicly and so spoke on condition of anonymity.
Carter later said of the strikes: "[It] does appear they were in areas where there probably [were] not ISIL forces, and that is precisely one of the problems with this approach."
Speaking at the U.N. Security Council earlier Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that the U.S. would have "grave concerns" if Russia conducted strikes against other groups.
ISIL controls parts of Homs province, including the historic town of Palmyra. Homs also has positions run by Al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, known as the Nusra Front. Both groups have fighters from the former Soviet Union, including Chechens.
The Homs area is important to President Bashar al Assad's control of western Syria. Armed groups’ control of that area would bisect the Assad-held west, separating Damascus from the coastal cities of Latakia and Tartous, where Russia operates a naval facility.
Syrian state television quoted an unnamed military official as saying that Russian warplanes have targeted ISIL positions in central Syria, including the areas of Rastan and Talbiseh, and areas near the town of Salamiyeh in Hama province.
Genevieve Casagrande of the Institute of the Study of War, using an alternative acronym for ISIL, said the airstrike on Talbisah, "did not hit ISIS militants and rather resulted in a large number of civilian casualties."
On Wednesday, just hours after parliament unanimously voted to allow him to send troops to Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke at a government meeting and said the only way to fight "terrorists" in Syria was to act preemptively.
Putin said Russia's military involvement in the country would only involve its air force and would be temporary. He added that it was still possible and necessary to unite international efforts to take on armed groups in Syria.
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said a Russian official in Baghdad had informed Washington that Russian military aircraft would begin "flying anti-ISIL missions today over Syria." Kirby also said the official "requested that U.S. aircraft avoid Syrian airspace during these missions." The spokesman added, however, that "the U.S.-led coalition will continue to fly missions over Iraq and Syria as planned."
Putin derided U.S. efforts to end the Syria war at the United Nations on Monday, suggesting a broader and more coordinated coalition was needed to defeat the armed groups fighting in the country.
Sergei Ivanov, the Kremlin's chief of Staff, insisted that Moscow is not going to send ground troops to Syria and will only use its air force "in order to support the government Syrian forces in their fight against the Islamic State,” using another name for ISIL.
Russia has been one of Assad's strongest allies since the Syrian crisis began in March 2011. The civil war has killed more than 250,000 people and wounded a million, according to U.N. figures.
Ivanov told reporters that Moscow had decided to help Assad in order to protect Russia from ISIL and similar fighters, not because of "some foreign policy goals or ambitions that our Western partners often accuse us of."
"We are talking about Russia's national security interests," Ivanov said, adding that that Moscow is worried about a growing number of Russian recruits going off to fight for ISIL.
Al Jazeera and wire services