As Russia enters its third week of airstrikes on Syrian rebel-held territory, Russian President Vladimir Putin has called on all interested countries to join an anti-Islamic State information center in Iraq’s capital city of Baghdad. Speaking at a summit for the Commonwealth of Independent States in Kazakhstan on Friday, Putin stressed the need to expand the anti-terrorist coalition in the Middle East.
“We call on all sides concerned to join the work of this information center,” the Russian leader said at the summit Friday, according to Interfax news agency in Moscow.
Putin added that Russia wants “the broadest coalition possible to be formed to crack down on extremists and terrorists, and it is making efforts to promote practical joint work with the main regional and international partners,” according to state-sponsored newspaper Russia Beyond the Headlines.
Since beginnng Sept. 30, Russian airstrikes in Syria have been a source of controversy in the Middle Eastern crisis. Putin brushed off the criticism Friday, saying the air campaign carried out by the Russian Aerospace Defense Force “is absolutely legitimate because it is being carried out on the basis of an official request from [Syrian] President [Bashar] Assad.” The force’s operations in Syria have “a strict framework — aviation and other measures are being used exclusively against terrorist groups,” the Russian leader said, according to Russia Beyond the Headlines.
But it remains unclear whether Russia is, in fact, aiming for ISIS militants or more moderate forces among Assad’s opponents — the regime calls all rebel groups “terrorists.” U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said earlier this month that Russian airstrikes didn’t appear to hit targets of the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which controls much of northern and eastern Syria. The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington, D.C., think tank, said on its website that “local Syrian sources claim the airstrikes exclusively targeted Syrian rebel positions, including the headquarters of Free Syrian Army-affiliated, Western-backed TOW anti-tank missile recipient al-Izza.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioglu warned Russia that it was making a “big mistake” by entering Syria’s four-and-a-half-year conflict and conducting airstrikes in support of Assad’s regime. “It … will bring no meaning or benefit, other than delaying the transition process to help Syria out of the chaos,” Arab News quoted Sinirlioglu as saying. “We will continue with our warnings.”