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