NATO Calls on Russia to 'Immediately Cease' Strikes on Syrian Rebels

NATO cease Russia airstrikes civilians
Russian President Vladimir Putin cups his ear to listen to a question as he departs after a summit on the Ukraine crisis at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, October 2, 2015. Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

NATO has urged Russia to "immediately cease its attacks on the Syrian opposition and civilians" and focus on combating Islamist group ISIS instead.

The secretary general of the alliance, Jens Stoltenberg, met with Turkish officials on Monday, after Turkish armed forces intercepted a Russian combat aircraft over the weekend that had violated Turkish airspace. The Turkish army also announced that another incident had occured on Sunday in which a Russian-made Mikoyan aircraft "harassed" Turkish Air Force units.

Stoltenberg held a meeting of the alliance's North Atlantic Council, the organization's decision-making body on Monday afternoon. Shortly after the meeting, NATO issued a statement, urging Moscow to tailor its strategy to combatting ISIS alone.

"Allies strongly protest these violations of Turkish sovereign airspace, and condemn these incursions into and violations of NATO airspace," the statement read. "Allies also note the extreme danger of such irresponsible behaviour. They call on the Russian Federation to cease and desist, and immediately explain these violations."

The statement added to existing criticism from Western governments, which have argued that Russia's military is targeting areas in northwest Syria that are not occupied by members of ISIS in any large numbers. Last week French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called Russia's airstrikes "curious" as they appeared to be hitting targets in Homs and other provinces that are not controlled by ISIS. Russia has persisted with military operations in these areas irrespectively, as well as bombing areas where ISIS isactive such as near Aleppo and Raqqa.

"Allies expressed their deep concern with regard to the Russian military buildup in Syria and especially the attacks by the Russian Air Force on Hama, Homs, and Idlib, which led to civilian casualties and did not target Da'esh (ISIS)," the statement added.

NATO urged Russia to "to focus its efforts on fighting ISIL (ISIS), and to promote a solution to the conflict through a political transition."

So far Russia has stressed that defeating ISIS in Syria is a priority, but the Kremlin has conceded that other groups in Syria are also being targeted by their airstrikes.