By Darya Korsunskaya and Lidia Kelly
MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that Russian air strikes in Syria would be limited in scope and that he hoped President Bashar al-Assad was ready for political reform and a compromise for the sake of his country and people.
Putin was speaking after the Kremlin launched air strikes against targets in Syria in its biggest intervention in the Middle East in decades, telling the U.S. air force to steer clear while its jets were in action.
"A definitive and long-term solution in Syria is only possible on the basis of political reform and on the basis of dialogue between normal forces in the country," Putin told reporters in Moscow.
"I know that President Assad understands that and is ready for such a process. We hope that he will be active and flexible and ready to compromise in the name of his country and his people."
The Russian defense ministry said Wednesday's air strikes targeted military equipment, communication facilities, arms depots, ammunition and fuel belonging to Islamic State.
Diplomats and rebels groups queried that account.
Ivan Konavolov, a Russian military expert, told Reuters Russia's decision to launch air strikes appeared to have been motivated by realpolitik.
"It means that ...there was an overall understanding that there was a need to put a political solution on the backburner for a while and that a military solution was needed," he said.
Putin said Russia and others had to act now to stop problems spilling over onto their home territories later.
"The only true way to combat international terrorism -- and there are rampant gangs of international terrorists in Syria and on the territory of neighboring countries -- is to act preemptively," Putin told a government meeting.
Waiting for the militants to come to you was not an option, he said.
Russia's operations in Syria would be carried out solely from the air and without the involvement of ground troops, he added.
"This support will be limited in time, for the duration of Syrian army offensives," said Putin, adding that all of Russia's partners had been informed about Moscow's actions and that the need for international cooperation on the issue remained.
A Sept. 28 poll by the Levada Center pollster showed that 69 percent of Russians either firmly or probably oppose deploying troops to Syria, but 67 percent said they backed Russian "political and diplomatic support" for Assad.
(Reporting by Lidia Kelly, Gabriela Baczynska and Darya Korsunskaya; Writing by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Andrew Osborn)