Defense Secretary Ashton Carter contradicted Moscow's claims Wednesday that its first airstrikes in Syria hit ISIS targets and warned that the Russian military buildup risked "pouring gasoline on the fire" of a civil war.
Russian President Vladimir told President Obama earlier this week that the main goal of his deployment of warplanes to northeastern Syria was to defeat ISIS, but Carter said the airstrikes did not come near any targets affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, also known as ISIL.
U.S. intelligence had been monitoring Russian activities closely, including airstrikes Wednesday outside the city of Homs near the Lebanese border, Carter said. "It does appear they were in areas where there were probably not ISIL forces," he said.
"This action is ill-advised and will backfire" because of a "logical contradiction" in Putin's reasoning, Carter said. A policy of supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while professing to attack ISIS was "doomed to failure," he said.
In Moscow, a statement from Russia's Defense Ministry said the airstrikes were carried out "against positions held by the Islamic State in Syrian territory." The targets hit included military vehicles, communications centers, weapons caches, ammunition and fuel depots, the Ministry said.
Carter's counterpart in France also said that the Russians missed ISIS with the airstrikes. "Russian forces struck Syria and curiously didn't hit Islamic State," Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told lawmakers in Paris.
A Syrian opposition leader, Hisham Marwah, told The Washington Post that the Russian airstrikes "targeted civilians, not ISIS," killing at least 37 people in the town of Talbiseh in Homs province.
Despite his differences with Russian counterparts, Carter said at a Pentagon news conference that he was preparing to send a team of top defense advisers to consult with the Russians on possible coordination in Syria and "de-conflicting" the airspace to avoid potential "incidents" between Russian and U.S. pilots.
"We're always concerned about the possibility of inadvertent incidents and lack of communication," Carter said. "We don't intend to make any change in our air operations," he added.
Since last Aug. 8, the U.S. and its coalition partners have carried out a total of more than 7,200 airstrikes -- the majority of them in Iraq and more than 3,000 in Syria, according to the Defense Department.
At the United Nations, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the U.S. was ready to "de-conflict" with Russian forces if the intent was to put more pressure on ISIS, but the fight against ISIS could not be meshed with support for Assad.
"Moreover, we have also made clear that we would also have grave concerns should Russia strike areas where ISIL and al-Qaeda-affiliated targets are not operating," he said.
Carter called the surprise news conference as the U.S. suffered major setbacks in Afghanistan, where the Taliban overran the provincial capital of Kunduz, and in Syria, where Syrian rebels trained and equipped by the U.S. last week turned over much of their equipment to an Al Qaeda-affiliated group.
Carter said that the U.S. had conducted "a limited number of airstrikes, primarily for force protection" of U.S. special operations troops who had been training Afghan forces around Kunduz.
Carter did not directly address whether U.S. military commanders were now recommending that U.S. forces remain in Afghanistan past 2016. President Obama's current plan calls for all U.S. forces to be out of Afghanistan by the end of next year with the exception of several hundred embassy security and logistics personnel.
Carter said Obama "has routinely noted that the conditions on the ground influence that policy process" and could impact on the current planned withdrawal.
In Kabul, coalition spokesman Col. Brian Tribus confirmed that U.S. commandoes in Kunduz had fought the Taliban but only in self-defense, Reuters reported.
"Coalition Special Forces advisers, while advising and assisting elements of the Afghan Security Forces, encountered an insurgent threat in the vicinity of the Kunduz airport" on Wednesday and engaged them, Tribus said. "This was done out of self-defense. When they encountered the threat, they defended themselves," he said.
The Russian airstrikes in Syria triggered more criticism of the Obama administration's tactics and strategy from Congressional Republicans.
Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, went to the Senate floor shortly after the Russian bombing began to renew his charges that the "feckless" policy of the Obama administration had led to the morass in the Mideast and Moscow's intervention.
"It did not have to be this way -- but this is the inevitable consequence of hollow words, red lines crossed, tarnished moral influence, leading from behind and a total lack of American leadership," said McCain.
--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com.