MOSCOW/WASHINGTON – Russia launched air strikes in Syria on Wednesday in its biggest Middle East intervention in decades, plunging the four-year-old civil war into a volatile new phase as President Vladimir Putin moved forcefully to stake out influence in the unstable region.

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Moscow’s assertion that it had hit Islamic State militants was immediately disputed by the United States and rebels on the ground. The attacks also raised the dangerous specter of Washington and Moscow running air strikes concurrently and in the same region, but without coordination.

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U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said he had directed U.S. military officials to meet with their Russian counterparts “as soon as possible” to discuss ways to make sure they do not come into conflict.

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The U.S. State Department said a Russian diplomat in Baghdad notified the United States of the intended air strikes an hour in advance and warned that American aircraft that have been pressing a daily bombing campaign against Islamic State positions should avoid Syrian airspace.

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the Russian warning was ignored and U.S. air strikes continued on Wednesday.

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Putin said he was striking against Islamic State and helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, long Russia’s closest ally in the region, in this aim.

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But Washington is concerned that Moscow is more interested in propping up Assad, who the United States has long held should leave office, than in beating Islamic State. Assad’s opponents in the brutal civil war include rebel groups that oppose both him and Islamic State and that are supported by the United States and other Western countries.

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The Russian defense ministry said it carried out about 20 flights over Syria, hitting eight Islamic State targets and destroying an Islamic State command post and an operations center in a mountainous area, Russian agencies reported.

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Syrians living in rebel-held areas of Homs province said the Russian air force unleashed a whole new level of devastation on their towns. Jets flying at higher altitudes than the Syrian air force emitted no noise to alert the people below to raids that were reported to have killed at least 33 civilians, including children.

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Moscow’s intervention means the conflict in Syria has been transformed in a few months from a proxy war, in which outside powers were arming and training mostly Syrians to fight each other, to an international conflict in which the world’s main military powers except China are directly involved in fighting.

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Russia joined the United States and its Arab allies, Turkey, France, Iran and Israel in direct intervention, with Britain expected to join soon, if it gets parliamentary approval.

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Carter said of the strikes, “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.” ISIL is one of the acronyms for Islamic State, which has seized control of large areas of Syria and Iraq over the past year.

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Western-backed Syrian opposition chief Khaled Khoja said the Russian strikes had killed 36 civilians and no rebel fighters, and accused Russia of seeking only to keep Assad in power.

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DANGER IN THE SKIES

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Moscow’s move meant that warplanes from both the United States and Russia will be sharing the skies above Syria.

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“I’m especially concerned because there has been no real effort by the Russian side to deconflict the Russian air strikes in Syria with the ongoing U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIL,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said during a visit to the United States.

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To “deconflict”, in military parlance, is to ensure that, in this case, Russian aircraft do not accidentally clash in any way with Western warplanes.

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Reflecting growing tension between the big powers, Kerry phoned his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov early on Wednesday to tell him the United States regarded the strikes as dangerous, a U.S. official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

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White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Russia was moving to “ramp up” support for Assad, adding, “They’ve made a significant military investment now in further propping him up.” – Reuters

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