Paris: With Russian warplanes bombing Syria for a third day, French President Francois Holland has told President Vladimir Putin that Moscow's airstrikes must be confined to attacking Islamic State militants, not other rebels opposing the Damascus government.
Hollande used a meeting yesterday on Ukraine to address Western concerns that Russia's airstrikes would serve to strengthen Syrian President Bashar Assad by targeting rebels perhaps including some aligned with the US rather than hitting IS fighters it has promised to attack.
Allies in a US-led coalition that is conducting its own air campaign in Syria called on Russia to cease attacks on the Syrian opposition and to focus on fighting the Islamic State group. A joint statement by France, Turkey, the US Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Britain expressed concern that Russia's actions will "only fuel more extremism and radicalisation."
The Russian Defense Ministry released images showing that its jets hit an Islamic State-held area near its de facto capital of Raqqa in northern Syria on Thursday. It said there were 14 new missions yesterday, including targets in Idlib and Hama provinces.
Hollande said he told Putin that only one of Russia's strikes in three days hit at the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, ISIS and Daesh. The other strikes, Hollande added, were on areas controlled by the opposition.
"Russia has always been involved in Syria. Since the beginning, Russia has supported the regime of Bashar Assad and furnished him weapons, even if it goes further now," Hollande told reporters. "But what I told Mr. Putin is that the strikes must concern Daesh, and only Daesh."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who also attended the meeting with Putin, added that the leaders "said very clearly that Daesh was the enemy that we needed to fight."
"We also said that we needed a political solution for Syria that should take into consideration the opposition's interests and that opposition has always had our support," she added.
In Washington, President Barack Obama said Russia's military campaign fails to distinguish between terrorist groups and moderate rebel forces with a legitimate interest in a negotiated end to the civil war. He called Russia's military involvement, including airstrikes, a self-defeating exercise that will move the Syrian conflict further away from a solution.
Obama also said that Syria would not turn into a "proxy war" between the United States and Russia.
Putin left the Paris meeting without comment and without appearing alongside the French and German leaders.
His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the leaders "talked at length about Syrian affairs," and the Russian leader briefed Hollande about how the Russian operation is going. Putin reiterated Russia's commitment to coordinate its airstrikes "with the interested parties," Peskov added.