MOSCOW — Russian officials vehemently defended the country’s airstrikes in Syria on Thursday as blows to Islamic State militants even as evidence mounted suggesting that U.S.-backed rebels and others were facing Moscow’s attacks.
And while Russian officials and diplomats rallied behind President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin’s stance appeared further clouded by acknowledgments that the missions have already extended beyond solely the Islamic State — the mutual foe of both the West and Russia.
In Paris, the Russian ambassador to France, Alexander Orlov, said the Russian attacks also targeted an al-Qaeda-linked group, Jabhat al-Nusra, or al-Nusra Front.
Syria’s ambassador to Russia, Riad Haddad, echoed that the joint hit list for Russia and Syrian government included al-Nusra, which is believed to have some coordination with the Islamic State but is still seen mostly as a rival.
“We are confronting armed terrorist groups in Syria, regardless of how they identify themselves, whether it is Jabhat al-Nusra, the ISIL or others,” he said, using one of the acronyms for the Islamic State.
“They all are pursuing ISIL ends,” he added, according to the Interfax news agency.
The ambassadors did not specifically mention any U.S.- and Western-backed rebel groups.
But the comment was certain to deepen suspicions by Washington and allies that Putin’s short-term aim is to give more breathing space to Syria’s embattled President Bashar al-Assad, whose government is strongly backed by Moscow.
Syrian activists, meanwhile, ramped up their own claims that Moscow was hitting groups seeking to bring down Assad, who has managed to hang on during more than four years of civil war.
Russia’s expanding military intervention in Syria also could snarl separate efforts by Russia and U.S. officials to coordinate strategies against the Islamic State and avoid potential battlefield missteps between the two powers — so-called “deconfliction” talks.
One monitoring group, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said Russian airstrikes again struck strongholds for an American-backed rebel group, Tajamu Alezzah, in the central Hama province.
The observatory also reported that airstrikes hit the northwestern city Jisr al-Shughour, which is in the hands of rebel groups including al-Nusra, after battles last month to drive back Assad’s forces.
In Washington, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told CNN he could “absolutely confirm” that airstrikes hit Western-backed groups such as the Free Syrian Army and other factions “armed and trained by the CIA.”
“We have communications with people there,” said McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The accounts could not be independently assessed, but the main focus of the Russian attacks appear in areas not known to have strong Islamic State footholds.
“Total rubbish” was how Gennady Zyuganov, a member of parliament and leader of Russia’s Communist party, called the U.S. accusations.
In televised remarks Thursday, Putin called accusations that Russian airstrikes had killed civilians in Syria “information attacks.”
He also addressed concerns about an accidental military clash between Russian and U.S.-led coalition forces, saying that his intelligence and military agencies were “establishing contacts” with counterparts in the United States.
“This work is ongoing and I hope that it will conclude with the creation of a regularly acting mechanism,” he said.
The spokesman for Russia’s Defense Ministry, Igor Konashenkov, said Thursday that warplanes hit a dozen Islamic State targets in the past 24 hours, destroying targets including a command center and two arms depots.
The ministry gave no specific locations, but Russian ambassador Orlov said Thursday that the targets were installations for Islamic State and the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.
The comments by various Russian officials came a day after U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gave a joint press conference at the United Nations in New York, where Lavrov said that the two countries were seeking to “establish channels of communications to avoid any unintended incidents” in Syria and also working on a political settlement to the war.
Lavrov also brushed off reports Wednesday that the Russian strikes had caused civilian deaths, saying “we do not have such data.”
The U.S. and Russia agree on the need to fight the Islamic State but not about what to do with the Syrian president. The Syrian civil war, which grew out of an uprising against Assad, has killed more than 250,000 people since March 2011 and sent millions of refugees fleeing to countries in the Middle East and Europe.
The dramatic escalation of Russia’s military involvement was viewed in Washington as an affront just two days after President Obama and Putin sat down to discuss means for negotiating the deep differences in their countries’ approaches to the conflict in Syria.
The strikes sharply increase tensions with Russia, relations already strained by the Russian backing of rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Accusing Russia of “pouring gasoline on the fire,” Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter vowed that U.S. pilots would continue their year-long bombing campaign against the Islamic State in Syria, despite Moscow’s warning to keep American planes away from its operations.
“I think what they’re doing is going to backfire and is counterproductive,” Carter said.
At the United Nations late Wednesday, the Saudi ambassador, Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, demanded the Russian air campaign “stop immediately” and accused Moscow of carrying out attacks in areas outside the control of the Islamic State.
Deane reported from London. Brian Murphy and William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.