Syrian activists reported fresh Russian airstrikes Wednesday in western Syria along with attacks by pro-government ground troops, while Russia considered coordinating with the United States and Turkey following criticism of its week-old Syrian campaign.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors violence in Syria, said Wednesday's airstrikes hit Hama and neighboring Idlib provinces, with Syrian troops using surface-to-surface missiles in the area.
The attacks targeted at least four insurgent positions in the area and involved heavy clashes on the ground, the head of the Observatory, Rami Abdulrahman, said Wednesday.
A spokesman for Russia's Defense Ministry said Russian and U.S. defense experts would meet Wednesday to discuss proposals to "coordinate actions in the fight against" Islamic State militants in Syria.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter told reporters on Tuesday that the two sides held talks last week that were initiated by Russia.
Carter also declined to comment on a U.S. response to Russian warplanes violating Turkish airspace, saying the issue would be covered at a meeting of NATO defense ministers on Thursday.
Russia and Turkey have each talked about the prospect of establishing a joint working group to coordinate and prevent possible incidents related to Russian airstrikes in Syria.
McCain: Russia ‘winning’
U.S. Senator John McCain told Alhurra TV that Russian incursions in Turkey's airspace are "very concerning," and equated coordination talks between the U.S. and Russia to appeasement.
McCain, who has long promoted deploying U.S. ground forces to fight Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, criticized the way Carter and other members of President Barack Obama's administration have responded to Russian activity in Syria, saying "everybody knows that Russia is winning."
"They have for the first time since 1973 played a major role in the Middle East, and they're achieving all of their objectives while we sit by and call it a quagmire or in the words of the secretary of defense, unprofessional," McCain said. "It has become almost a joke."
Obama authorized an aerial campaign against the Islamic State that has included more than 2,600 airstrikes in Syria and 4,600 in Iraq, but the bombings have had limited success and he has so far ruled out sending American ground troops.
McCain said it is "obvious" Russia is targeting moderate opposition fighters and not the Islamic State with its own airstrikes that began last week, and criticized as "outrageously immoral" the failure of the U.S. to protect the Syrian rebels it has trained and equipped.
"We should say to the Russians we are going to fly anywhere we want to at any time and you better not get in the way," he said.
Turkey reported two violations of its airspace by Russian jets, one Saturday and another Sunday, and twice summoned Russia's ambassador to lodge its complaints. Russian officials have said the incursions happened by mistake.
In light of those incidents, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday questioned future relations between the two countries
"Some steps that we do not desire are being taken. It is not suitable for Turkey to accept them," Erdogan said during a news conference with Belgium's prime minister in Brussels.
Western allies have criticized Russia's overall involvement in Syria and raised additional questions about its warplanes crossing into Turkish territory. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters Tuesday that the violations do not look like an accident.
"I will not speculate on the motives, I would just reiterate or restate that this is a serious violation of Turkish airspace, it should not happen again, and NATO has expressed strong solidarity with Turkey," Stoltenberg said.
Marcin Zaborowski, executive vice president of the Center for European Policy Analysis, told VOA's Persian service that Russia is trying to test NATO's limits by violating Turkish airspace.
"It does seem so, that Russia is taking such steps, while Turkey is trying to stay away from the Russia/West tensions," Zaborowski said.
On Monday, a top Russian lawmaker said "a unit of Russian volunteers" may join Syrian government troops fighting Islamic State extremists on the ground.
The lawmaker's remarks came in response to unconfirmed media reports that Russian volunteers already have been spotted fighting alongside the Syrian army.
Carter did not confirm to reporters Tuesday the involvement of Russian ground forces but sharply criticized the idea. Calling the strategy "futile," he said Moscow would be “deepening their mistake in Syria” if it’s true.