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Pentagon questions true target of Russia’s Syrian strikes

Hours after the Russian parliament authorized military action in Syria, aircraft bombed a number of sites in Syria. But exactly what the Russians hit -- and why -- remain unclear. Moscow reported attacking Islamic State targets, but the Free Syrian Army -- a Western-backed faction that opposes the Assad regime -- charged their forces were hit. Hari Sreenivasan reports.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Russian military aircraft bombed a number of sites in Syria today, deepening its involvement in that nation's civil war. But there are conflicting reports about exactly what Russia was targeting.

    Hari Sreenivasan has this report.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    This amateur video purports to be the first evidence of Russian warplanes in action over Syria, plumes of smoke rising over cities as fighters streak across the skies. The assault began hours after the Russian parliament authorized action and President Vladimir Putin vowed to forge ahead.

  • PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russia (through interpreter):

    The only right way to fight international terrorism in Syria is to act preemptively, to fight and eliminate fighters and terrorists on the territories they have already occupied, not to wait until they come to our home.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    But exactly what the Russians hit, and why, remained unclear. There were strikes near Homs and in Hama province, and Moscow reported attacking eight Islamic State targets. But, by all accounts IS, or ISIL, has no significant presence in those areas.

    Instead, the Free Syrian Army charged its forces were targeted. The western-backed faction has fought Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Russia. U.S. officials agreed the strikes may have hit moderate rebel factions, and not Islamic State forces. The Kremlin denied it, but also claimed most of the Free Syrian Army has now joined ISIL ranks.

    And, at the United Nations, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was dismissive.

  • SERGEI LAVROV, Foreign Minister, Russia:

    Everything — everything was said by the Russian Ministry of Defense. Don't listen to Pentagon about the Russian strikes.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Secretary of State John Kerry was also at the U.N. He said Washington would welcome any genuine effort to defeat ISIL, but he issued a warning as well.

    JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State: We would have grave concerns should Russia strike areas where ISIL and al-Qaida affiliated targets are now operating — are not operating.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Meanwhile, at a U.S. House hearing, a top Pentagon official complained the Russians gave just one hour's notice of the strikes.

    ROBERT WORK, Deputy Secretary of Defense: We are alarmed by what happened this morning. What was agreed by the two presidents is that our militaries would talk, so that we would deconflict operations.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said later those military-to-military talks are set to take place in the coming days. But he said the Kremlin is making a mistake.

    ASHTON CARTER, Secretary of Defense: By supporting Assad and thereby, seemingly, taking on everybody who is fighting Assad, you're taking on the whole rest of the country of Syria. That is not our position. And so that's one of the reasons why — in fact, it is the central reason why the Russian approach here is doomed to fail.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Carter said the Russian actions will not deter the U.S.-led air war on Islamic State fighters that's been under way for a year.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

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