MOSCOW (AP) — Russian military jets carried out airstrikes Wednesday against the Islamic State group in Syria for the first time — a move that came after President Vladimir Putin received parliamentary approval to send Russian troops to Syria.
The airstrikes targeted positions, vehicles and warehouses that Russia believes belong to IS militants, ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov told Russian news agencies.
Putin sought to portray the airstrikes as a pre-emptive attack against the Islamic militants who have taken over large parts of Syria and Iraq. Russia estimates at least 2,400 of its own citizens are already fighting with extremists in Syria and Iraq.
"If they (militants) succeed in Syria, they will return to their home country, and they will come to Russia, too," Putin said in a televised speech at a government session.
State Department spokesman John Kirby told The Associated Press that a Russian official in Baghdad informed U.S. Embassy personnel on Wednesday that Russian military aircraft would shortly begin flying anti-IS missions over Syria. The Russian official also asked that U.S. aircraft avoid Syrian airspace during those missions Wednesday. Kirby did not say whether the U.S. agreed to that request.
The US-led counter-ISIL coalition will continue to fly missions over Iraq and Syria, Kirby added.
Russian lawmakers voted unanimously Wednesday to allow Putin to order airstrikes in Syria, where Russia has deployed fighter jets and other weapons in recent weeks. The Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, discussed Putin's request for the authorization behind closed doors, cutting off its live web broadcast to hold a debate notable for its quickness.
Putin had to request parliamentary approval for any use of Russian troops abroad, according to the constitution. The last time he did so was before Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March 2014.
Putin on Wednesday insisted that Russia is not going to send troops to Syria and that its role in Syrian army operations will be limited.
"We certainly are not going to plunge head-on into this conflict," he said. "First, we will be supporting the Syrian army purely in its legitimate fight with terrorist groups. Second, this will be air support without any participation in the ground operations."
Putin also said he expects Syrian President Bashar Assad, Russia's long-time ally, to sit down and talk with the Syrian opposition about a political settlement, but added he was referring to what he described as a "healthy" opposition group.
Russia's first airstrike on Syria came after Putin's meeting Monday with President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York, where the two discussed Russia's military buildup in Syria.
Putin and other officials have said Russia was providing weapons and training to Assad's army to help it combat IS. Russian navy transport vessels have been shuttling back and forth for weeks to ferry troops, weapons and supplies to an air base near the Syrian coastal city of Latakia. IHS Jane's, a leading defense research group, said last week that satellite images of the base showed 28 jets, including Su-30 multirole fighters, Su-25 ground attack jets, Su-24 bombers and possibly Ka-52 helicopter gunships.
Sergei Ivanov, chief of Putin's administration, said in televised remarks after the parliamentary vote that Moscow was responding to a request from Assad asking for help. He said the biggest difference between Russian airstrikes and those being conducted by the United States and other countries is that "they do not comply with international law, but we do."
Moscow has always been a top ally of Assad. The war in Syria against his regime, which began in 2011, has left at least 250,000 dead and forced millions to flee the country. It is also the driving force behind the record-breaking number of asylum-seekers fleeing to Europe this year.
Worried by the threat of Russian and U.S. jets clashing inadvertently over Syrian skies, Washington agreed to talk to Moscow on how to "deconflict" their military actions. Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter had a 50-minute phone call with his Russian counterpart — the first such military-to-military discussion between the two countries in more than a year.
On Tuesday, Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said Carter had instructed his staff to contact Russian officials about establishing talks on ways to keep each other's air operations in Syria from colliding or otherwise getting in each other's way. Cook said it was not yet clear when these talks would start.
Israel has taken similar precautions, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visiting Moscow last week to agree with Putin on a coordination mechanism to avoid any possible confrontation between Israeli and Russian forces in Syria.
Russian Federation Council chairwoman Valentina Matvienko said in a live news conference on Russian television that parliament's decision on Wednesday reflected Russia's growing role in global affairs.
"We as a great power cannot but take part in fighting this great evil," Matvienko said, adding that the Soviet Union and Syria signed a security cooperation agreement in 1980 that guarantees that Moscow would help Damascus if asked. "We couldn't refuse Bashar Assad and keep on seeing how people, women and children are dying."
In Baghdad, Saad al-Hadithi, a spokesman for the Iraqi prime minister, said his government was in talks with Russia "in the hope that shared intelligence will further our abilities to defeat the terrorists within our borders."
Julie Pace in New York, Albert Aji in Damascus and Viviam Salama in Baghdad contributed to this report.