MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian air strikes in Syria are targeting a list of well-known militant organisations, not only Islamic State, the Kremlin said on Thursday, a day after the launch of its aerial campaign opened up a volatile new phase in the conflict.
Moscow had previously framed its campaign as primarily aimed at Islamic State militants, saying it feared Russian and other ex-Soviet citizens who belong to the group would shift their focus to their home countries if they were not stopped in Syria.
But on Thursday, after the United States and rebels on the ground suggested Russian strikes had so far not focused on Islamic State, it said its operation was pitched more broadly.
“These organisations (on the target list) are well-known and the targets are chosen in coordination with the armed forces of Syria,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, when asked if Russia and the West had different views on what constituted a terrorist group.
He said that mechanisms to coordinate the strikes with other countries were working.
Asked whether President Vladimir Putin was satisfied with the way the Russian air campaign was shaping up, Peskov said it was too early to discuss the matter.
Russia’s air strikes represent its biggest Middle East intervention in decades, adding a complex new dimension to Syria’s four-year civil war as Putin moves forcefully to stake out influence in the highly unstable region.
On Thursday, several Russian newspapers close to the Kremlin emphasised Putin’s comments about how Moscow did not intend to “plunge head first” into the Syrian conflict and how Russia’s intervention was legal because it was taking place at the request of President Bashar al-Assad.
Religious leaders, including Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, and Talgat Tadzhuddin, the chief Mufti of Russia, were also quoted as offering their support for the air strikes, along with Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of Russia’s southern, mainly Muslim republic of Chechnya.
Vsevolod Chaplin, a senior Orthodox cleric, was quoted by the Interfax news agency, as saying that the fight against terrorism was “a holy battle”.
A rare note of scepticism came from the Moskovskiy Komsomolets newspaper, however, which recalled the difficulties the Soviet Union faced after going into Afghanistan in 1979 and the risk of a backlash from Islamist militants inside Russia.
“Danger number one is the possibility of an ‘assymetrical reply” from ISIS (Islamic State) in the form of large-scale terrorist attacks on our territory,” wrote Mikhail Rostovsky, a commentator for the newspaper.
Russian public opinion appears divided on the subject.
A Sept. 28 poll by the Levada Centre pollster showed that 69 percent of Russians either firmly or probably opposed deploying troops to Syria. But 67 percent said they backed Russian “political and diplomatic support” for Assad.
Editing by Gareth Jones