Carter said that Russian missiles had been fired without giving notice to other states in the region and came within a few miles of hitting a US drone over Syrian airspace.
“We’ve seen increasingly unprofessional behaviour from Russian forces. They violated Turkish airspace … They shot cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea without warning,” the defence secretary said. But he restated a US refusal to coordinate its own air campaign against Isis with Russian forces because of Moscow’s emphasis on supporting the Syrian president. Aircraft bombing Islamist militants in Syria were re-routed at least once to avoid a close encounter with Russian planes.
Germany’s defence minister, Ursula von der Leyen, said Russia must recognise that if it targeted opposition groups in Syria that are fighting Isis, “Russia will strengthen Isis and this can be neither in the Russian interest, nor in our interest”.
The British defence secretary, Michael Fallon, said Russia’s intervention was making “a very serious situation in Syria much more dangerous”.
Fallon announced that the UK would be sending a hundred more British trainers to the Baltic states to counter Russian pressure there.
The increased Nato response force is supposed to be able to react to threats in both the Baltics and in Turkey. The Russian intervention however has come at a time when Nato Patriot anti-aircraft missiles are being withdrawn from Turkey. A US battery was shipped back to the US for “modernisation”, Germany withdrew its battery partly in protest at Turkish airstrikes against Kurdish groups in Syria, and Spain is not expected to keep its missiles in Turkey beyond the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Congress has begun an investigation into whether US intelligence agencies had anticipated the scale and objectives of the Russian intervention in Syria, according to the Reuters news agency.
Most of the recent fighting appeared to be concentrated in Hama, a central province with a majority Sunni capital that has remained in the hands of the regime since the start of the war. It is key to Assad’s strategy of cementing control over major population centres in a strip of territory from Latakia in the north, through to Homs, Hama and Damascus.
Rebels recently attempted to wrest control of the strategic al-Ghab plain in Hama’s countryside, drawing closer to Assad’s coastal strongholds, and the Russian strategy seems primarily aimed at securing this territory from further incursions.
Jaysh al-Fateh, a coalition of Islamist rebel factions, conquered most of Idlib in a spring offensive, forcing the regime to abandon the province. Russian airstrikes have repeatedly targeted the province over the past week, though there is no known Isis presence in the area.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said Russian planes also bombed targets on the outskirts of the historic city of Palmyra, which was seized by Isis in May, and the town of Qaryatain, which was also seized by the militants this summer and whose Christian residents have either been taken hostage or fled. Syrian state TV said airstrikes also hit Isis positions in northern Aleppo.
It is unclear if the Assad regime will be able to score major ground advances against the rebels following years of vicious warfare that has sapped his armed forces, and amid widespread dereliction of duty among its conscripts, while facing rebels who are united by their anger at the Russian intervention.
“Russia is primarily targeting opposition fighters, and this could end any future peace process in Syria and strengthen the role of Islamic State and the extreme factions that do not want peace, whether they support or oppose the regime,” said the SOHR’s director, Rami Abdul Rahman.