Russia launched its long-awaited offensive across Syria on Tuesday just hours after Vladimir Putin discussed the conflict with Donald Trump amid growing questions about how the incoming American president will deal with his Russian counterpart.
Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister, said the air strikes were targeting Isis and Syrian jihadis, their ammunition depots and training camps, in the provinces of Idlib and Homs. Opposition activists said the besieged northern city of Aleppo had also been subject to intensifying bombardment for the first time in weeks, though the Kremlin denied it was hitting the area.
The Trump camp did not say whether the two leaders had discussed Syria on the Monday evening telephone call, but the Kremlin said they agreed on the need for joint efforts to fight terrorism and discussed the possibility of a settlement to the five-year Syrian conflict.
The timing raised alarms in Washington, with Senator John McCain, a leading voice on national security issues who clashed with Mr Trump during the campaign, warning the incoming administration that a shift in US policy would amount to “complicity in Putin and Assad’s butchery of the Syrian people”.
“With the US presidential transition under way, Vladimir Putin has said in recent days that he wants to improve relations with the United States,” Mr McCain said. “We should place as much faith in such statements as any other made by a former KGB agent who has plunged his country into tyranny, murdered his political opponents, invaded his neighbours, threatened America’s allies, and attempted to undermine America’s elections.”
Throughout the campaign, Mr Trump roiled the foreign policy establishment on both sides of the Atlantic by praising Mr Putin as a strong leader and hailing his involvement in Syrian civil war as a campaign against extremists.
Under President Barack Obama, Russia’s backing of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its involvement in the bombardment of Aleppo have severely strained Moscow’s relations with the US and its European allies.
Western governments have condemned many of Mr Putin’s actions, going so far as accusing Russia of being complicit in war crimes for bombing civilians and hospitals in Aleppo following the collapse of a brief ceasefire brokered by Washington and Moscow.
They have also called for the removal of Mr Assad, who Mr Putin has backed both diplomatically and militarily. Mr Trump has suggested he is more interested in targeting Isis than the removal of Mr Assad, which could give Syria and Russia more rein to attack the rebels.
Russia, which intervened militarily in the conflict a year ago, eventually called a pause to its bombardment of the city. But the Syrian regime has been warning for days of a new offensive on Aleppo, which is divided between rebels and government forces and is the critical battleground in the war.
Analysts have been concerned Damascus and Moscow would use the political transition in the US to mount an all-out offensive to defeat the rebels.
Speaking at a meeting with Mr Putin, Mr Shoigu said the Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s only aircraft carrier, was participating in the campaign — its first combat mission.
“There were some 30 air strikes and three people have died so far,” said Hisham Skaff of the Fastaqem Kama Umirt rebel brigade in Aleppo. “This is very scary.”
Moscow appeared to warn other outside forces against intervening to halt the offensive, with Mr Shoigu highlighting Russia’s air defence capabilities covering an area of the Mediterranean.
In the past 24 hours air strikes have hit three hospitals in rebel-held villages in Aleppo province, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Yasser Alyousef of the Nour al-Din al-Zinki rebel group accused Russia and the Syrian regime of “butchery”.
“In the coming hours they are preparing to commit butchery and crimes against humanity in northern Syria, specifically in the cities of Aleppo and Idlib,” he said.
People in rebel-held areas of Aleppo received text messages over the weekend sent out by the regime that warned them of an impending offensive.
“For the militants in eastern Aleppo, we give you only 24 hours to make the decision to withdraw, your feeble leadership cannot get you out,” said one text seen by the Financial Times. “If anyone of you desires a safe life, then lay down your arms and we will guarantee your safety.”
Abu Bakr, a rebel commander with the Jaish al Mujahideen, said the strikes on the villages surrounding Aleppo were causing “massacres”.
“They have not spared anything. They are bombing anything that moves,” he said. “Chicken farms, bakeries, hospitals — everything is being targeted and the United Nations should be ashamed of itself for standing idle as a Security Council member is committing war crimes.”
Syrian and Russian authorities deny targeting hospitals.
The Syrian regime and its allied forces, which include Iranian and Lebanese militia, have pushed rebel forces back from western parts of Aleppo after an attempt to launch a counter-offensive last week.