ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Russian planes carried out a series of airstrikes in Syria today, giving an hour's warning to the U.S., which also has planes in Syrian airspace. And you now have a situation where the U.S. and Russia are backing opposing proxies in the military conflict in the Middle East, and there are disputed claims as to exactly what groups the Russians are targeting.
ASH CARTER: It does appear that they were in areas where there probably were not ISIL forces, and that is precisely one of the problems with this whole approach.
SIEGEL: That's Defense Secretary Ash Carter. Russia says it's fighting the so-called Islamic State and other extremists, but Moscow backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who the U.S. would like to see removed from power. NPR's Alice Fordham is in Behrut monitoring what's happening in Syria. Alice, what did Russia do today?
ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Well, what they did do is their biggest military move yet in Syria. And it comes about a month after they started building up the Russian air force on the Mediterranean coast in Syria. So Syria state media named seven areas that the Russians struck in coordination with the Syrian air force. The U.S. has confirmed at least one of those strikes. Russia says it carried out 20 airstrikes, and it hit eight ISIS targets.
But most of the places where Syria says Russia struck - they're not ISIS-held areas. They're areas held by other armed groups fighting against Assad. They're mainly in the center and in the north of the country. And activists on the ground are telling us that more than two dozen civilians were actually killed in the attacks. They're not reporting any deaths of ISIS fighters so far. But Russia says this is just propaganda by the opposition. It calls it an information war.
SIEGEL: Well, what does this show you about Russia's aims in Syria?
FORDHAM: Well, I think the big jolt in terms of what we've seen in the last few days and what we saw today is this short notice of just one hour, as you say, that they gave to the United States and this demand that they issued that planes from the U.S.-led coalition leave Syrian airspace.
Now, despite a long chill in Russian relations, American defense officials haven't been totally opposed to Russia joining the fight against ISIS in Syria. There's been meetings between top Russian and American defense officials. And of course, President Putin spoke to President Obama this week, and they've been discussing what's called de-confliction, which is kind of making sure nothing goes wrong as they all fly in the same airspace. So the tone has been somewhat warmer than usual.
And so to - for Russia to make this demand which the U.S. said they did not accede to, might show, you know, all this talk of coordination wasn't much more than talk. And the other thing that this might indicate if it is confirmed, as defense officials say, that it's rebel forces rather than ISIS that Russia has struck, it's that Putin's goal could be more to support Assad than to attack ISIS.
SIEGEL: Well, the U.S. has its own aims in Syria. Washington backs some rebel groups. How might Russia's actions affect what the United States is doing there?
FORDHAM: Well, in terms of the battle situation in Syria, the U.S.-led air campaign against ISIS is still important. But the ground programs, those U.S.-led programs to train and equip groups to fight both Assad and to fight ISIS, have really floundered, and they've been much less important in Syria than Assad's loyalists backed by Iran and Russia or rebels who are supported by regional countries. So you could argue that this new, aggressive Russian intervention marginalizes American efforts further.
And then the other factor, of course, is President Assad. The United States and others have long argued that he has to go. He has killed too many of his people to be a viable leader, to be part of a transition of power in the country. When Russia first stepped up its operations, stepped up its forces earlier this month, there was some hope that Putin, who has been talking to some parts of the Syrian opposition that he might have the clout to bring about a transition of power in Syria, that Putin might want to assert himself as someone who could be a regional power broker. But that also now seems to be almost an optimistic way of thinking about things if Russia is doubling down on Assad and bombing his enemies rather than bombing ISIS.
SIEGEL: NPR's Alice Fordham in Behrut. Alice, thanks.
FORDHAM: You're welcome.
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