Russia claims its warships are targeting Islamic State

Ground attacks, air strikes in Syria hit four insurgent-held areas, according to monitor

Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu has claimed that Russia is using warships in the Caspian Sea to target Islamic State in Syria.

Mr Shoigu told Russian president Vladimir Putin in televised remarks that on Wednesday morning Russia carried out 26 missile strikes from four warships in its Caspian Sea flotilla.

Mr Shoigu insisted the operation destroyed all the targets and did not launch any strikes upon civilian areas.

Mr Shoigu also said Russia has carried out 112 air strikes on Islamic State positions since its operation began on September 30th.

Ground attacks

The Syrian army and allied militia carried out ground attacks on insurgent positions in Syria on Wednesday backed by Russian air strikes, a monitor said.

Russia's air strikes hit northern parts of Hama province and nearby areas in Idlib province, targeting towns close to the main north-south highway that runs through major cities in western Syria, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Ground attacks using heavy surface-to-surface missile bombardments targeted at least four insurgent positions in the area and there were heavy clashes on the ground, organisation head Rami Abdulrahman said.

Although Wednesday’s combined assault marked a military escalation, it was not immediately clear whether there would be rapid gains in a conflict that has already dragged on for more than four years.

“There is no information yet of any (government) advances on the ground, but the air strikes have hit vehicles and insurgent bases,” Mr Abdulrahman said.

A regional source familiar with the military situation in Syria said forces including Hezbollah fighters were taking part in the ground attack against four rebel-held areas.

In Syria, the leader of a US-backed rebel group, Tajammu Alezzah, confirmed the ground offensive, claiming there were Russian and Iranian soldiers in the operation.

Activist Ahmad al-Ahmad, who is currently in Idlib, said government troops are “heavily” shelling central areas after rebels attacked an army post and destroyed a tank there.

Assad allies

Reuters reported last week that allies of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, including Iranians, were preparing a ground attack in Syria, aimed at recapturing territory lost by the government to rebels in rapid advances this year.

Mr Abdulrahman, who tracks the conflict using sources in Syria, said the ground assault was being carried out by “regime forces” and their allies, with no immediate sign of Russian involvement on the ground.

Russia, a top ally of Assad, started air strikes in Syria a week ago, saying they were targeting hardline Islamic State militants.

But fighters on the ground and western countries have said the Russian campaign is mainly focusing on other rebel groups that have seized government-held areas in the west of the country, and is aimed at shoring up Mr Assad rather than combating Islamic State.

Russia's strikes on Wednesday targeted the towns of Kafr Zita, Kafr Nabudah, al-Sayyad and the village of al-Latamneh in Hama province and the towns of Khan Shaykhun and Alhbit in Idlib, the observatory said.

Most of Idlib province is held by an insurgent alliance that includes al-Qaeda’s Syria wing Nusra Front and other Islamist factions.

Meanwhile, in Turkey, prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu renewed criticism of Russia’s air strikes in Syria, insisting they were mainly targeting the moderate Syrian opposition and therefore helping to strengthen Islamic State.

He asked that Russia also respect Turkey’s security concerns over Syria.

Mr Davutoglu called on Russia to respect Turkey’s air space, saying the country would not “make any concessions” on matters concerning its border security.

Reuters and PA