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A video grab from footage made available on the Russian Defence Ministry's official website purporting to show an air strike in Syria on Sept. 30.Russian Defence Ministry/AFP / Getty Images

Russian warplanes attacked rebels in Syria on Wednesday, as President Vladimir Putin reasserted Moscow's role as a major power while creating a dangerous clash of political objectives – with Russia backing Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, while U.S. warplanes support some rebel groups seeking to oust the Assad regime.

Within hours, the Obama administration warned Moscow against attacking rebels backed by Washington while voicing cautious approval if Russian air strikes were limited to Islamic extremists who pose a threat to the West.

With Russian and U.S warplanes attacking rebel groups in pursuit of divergent political aims while President Barack Obama and President Putin both jockey to win support at home, the Syrian war has entered a more dangerous phase. No longer a proxy war, the Syrian conflict has brought warplanes from the old Cold War rivals into close proximity.

After the two presidents failed, as expected, to agree on a joint Syrian strategy in a face-to-face meeting at the United Nations on Monday, both U.S. and Russian air force officials scrambled Wednesday to keep their warplanes away from each other – "deconfliction" in military jargon.

Early efforts seemed inadequate. A Russian diplomat in Baghdad warned U.S. officials less than an hour before Sukhoi fighter-bombers, recently deployed to a Syrian air base, launched a series of air strikes against rebels engaging forces loyal to the Assad regime.

While the Kremlin insisted the Russian attacks were – like those of the U.S.-led coalition – aimed at the Islamic State, U.S. officials said Russian attacks hit targets west of Homs, far from areas controlled by Islamic State in eastern Syria.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned "we would have grave concerns should Russia strike areas where ISIL and al-Qaeda affiliated targets are not operating," referring to the Islamic State by its older acronym and adding: "Strikes of that kind would question Russia's real intentions; fighting ISIL or protecting the Assad regime."

Genevieve Casagrande, of the Institute of the Study of War, said at least one Russian air strike on Talbisah "did not hit [ISIS] militants and rather resulted in a large number of civilian casualties."

"The fact of the matter is, the Russians are responding from a position of weakness," said Josh Earnest, Mr. Obama's spokesman.

Mr. Obama's spokesman, Josh Earnest, accused Mr. Putin of acting out of weakness in seeking to prop up the failing Assad regime.

Russia and Iran, both staunchly allied to Mr. al-Assad, back the embattled Syrian regime in a war that has killed hundreds of thousands, displaced millions and created the largest refugee exodus in decades.

Washington is already uneasily co-ordinating its military operation, including air strikes and thousands of Special Forces, in Iraq to avoid Iranian Quds special forces sent by Tehran to back Shia militias fighting the Islamic State and other Sunni rebels.

Now, the Obama Pentagon faces deconflicting air strikes so U.S. and Russian warplanes remain separated as they attack an overlapping set of rebel groups in Syria.

In Moscow, Mr. Putin said Russian air strikes would "be supporting the Syrian army purely in its legitimate fight with terrorist groups" – claiming much of the same sort of political legitimacy Washington invokes for the U.S.-led air war, which includes six Canadian warplanes, in Iraq. There, it is cast as an air campaign at the request of the Iraqi government against rebels and terrorists seeking to topple the Baghdad regime.

U.S. officials have invoked the right of self-defence under Article 51 of the United Nations charter as justification for bombing targets outside Iraq in Syria. Mr. Putin's chief of staff said Russia was coming to the aid of its long-time ally, Syria, at the request of Mr. al-Assad. The difference between Russian bombing and U.S. bombing in Syria is that "they do not comply with international law, but we do," said Sergei Ivanov, Mr. Putin's chief of staff.

In announcing the air campaign, Mr. Putin, like Mr. Obama, ruled out sending large numbers of ground troops to Syria. But Moscow has sent roughly 1,000 marines to guard the Syrian airfield where about two dozen Sukhoi fighter-bombers are based.

For Mr. Obama, the Russian leader's military gambit creates an unwelcome dynamic and will fuel accusations by domestic critics that the U.S. President's dithering on Syria allowed the violence to worsen and spread. "It did not have to be this way – but this is the inevitable consequence of hollow words, red lines crossed, tarnished moral influence, leading from behind and a total lack of American leadership," said Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, defeated by Mr. Obama in the 2008 presidential election and long a fierce critic of his Democratic rival, hours after the Russian warplanes attacked.

Earlier this week, in a speech to the United Nations, Mr. Obama said: "The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict" in Syria, but he offered no specific plan and in a subsequent meeting with Mr. Putin came to no agreement on joint action.

U.S. and Russian military deconfliction may be far easier than sorting out the convoluted and often conflicting political aims of the United States, Russia and Iran. All three powers have different stakes as Syria collapses in violence, but they also share the goal of destroying the nascent caliphate being carved out of western Iraq and eastern Syria by Islamic State extremists.

American and Russian, previously Soviet, militaries have decades of experience and plenty of communications channels available to avoid unintended encounters.

"My problem isn't that I don't understand what they're doing," U.S. Defence Secretary Ash Carter said at a Pentagon briefing. "My problem is that I think what they are doing will backfire and is counterproductive."

Like Mr. Obama, Mr. Putin made the case for attacking Islamic extremists on the basis that if left unchecked and allowed to create a caliphate, the jihadis would eventually pose a threat at home.

"If they succeed in Syria … they will come to Russia, too," Mr. Putin said.