MOSCOW • Moscow says it worked with opposition groups in its latest Syrian air strikes while the US says its pilots have communicated with Russian aircraft in tentative signs that the powers are working together to end the civil war ahead of United Nations talks.
Russia said its jets had bombed 24 targets in Syria using coordinates supplied by "opposition representatives" - the first time it has claimed to have worked with those fighting Syria's regime since beginning its air offensive.
"The coordinates of all of these targets were given to us by opposition representatives," senior military official Andrei Kartapolov said on Tuesday, without specifying the groups involved.
Such close cooperation will allow us to unite the efforts of the government troops with other patriotic forces in Syria that used to be in the opposition and act as a united front against the common enemy - international terrorism.
THE RUSSIAN DEFENCE MINISTRY
Hours later, the Pentagon said its fighter pilots had communicated directly with Russian jets in the skies over Syria in the first test of a new strategy to ensure the two sides' parallel campaigns do not boil over into conflict.
Washington and Moscow signed an agreement on Oct 20 laying out rules to keep their pilots away from each other in the air, after several close encounters raised the prospect of a mid-air collision or some other dangerous encounter.
A US-led coalition has been bombing Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) forces since December last year while Russia opened an air campaign in September against a broader range of rebels that Western powers say is designed to support its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The burgeoning coordination between the two comes as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was set to meet the UN's Syria envoy, Mr Staffan de Mistura, in Moscow yesterday.
The two met last Friday in Vienna alongside top diplomats from 17 other international players, including the US, Iran and Saudi Arabia, in the broadest push yet to end the four-year conflict.
The participants - who did not include representatives of the Syrian government or its opponents - agreed to ask the UN to broker a peace deal between the regime and the opposition to clear the way for a new Constitution and elections.
But divisions remain on the fate of Mr Assad, with Russia and Iran resisting pressure from Western powers and Saudi Arabia to force the Syrian leader from power.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Moqdad on Tuesday ruled out any transition period in the war-torn country, insisting that Mr Assad was "the legitimate president elected by the Syrian people".
Russia offered on Tuesday to host a meeting between representatives of the Syrian government and rebel groups in Moscow next week, and said it had given Saudi Arabia and the US a list of the opposition figures with whom it was working.
Moscow said it had set up "working coordination groups" aimed at bolstering the fight against ISIS, but the identities of those involved were being kept secret.
"Such close cooperation will allow us to unite the efforts of the government troops with other patriotic forces in Syria that used to be in the opposition and act as a united front against the common enemy - international terrorism," the Russian Defence Ministry said.
The latest strikes had hit targets close to Palmyra, Deir Ezzor, Ithriya and eastern Aleppo with assistance from the opposition, destroying "terrorist" command posts, munition stores and anti-aircraft artillery, it said.
Moscow said on Tuesday that it had hit 2,084 targets in 1,631 sorties, including 52 training camps and 287 command posts, causing "significant losses to the terrorists" and undermining their morale.
"Our aim both in Syria and anywhere else is to fight terrorism first of all," said Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said warplanes belonging to either Russia or the Syrian regime had bombed ISIS' de facto capital Raqa on Tuesday, killing at least 23 people.