Syrian troops launch ground offensive backed by Russia
Escalating air strikes as Russia fires missiles from warships in Caspian Sea for first time
A Russian warship in the Caspian Sea launches missiles on Wednesday. The Russian Defence Ministry the warships of the Caspian Flotilla carried out massive strikes against Islamic State facilities in Syria. Photograph: EPA/Russian Defence Ministry
Ground troops loyal to president Bashar al-Assad have launched a major offensive in central Syria backed by Russian air strikes. It is an escalation in Moscow’s week-long campaign, which has so far been restricted to air strikes to soften up rebel positions near major loyalist strongholds.
Activists said Russian fighter jets bombed a series of towns held by the opposition in Hama’s countryside in concert with a push by regime troops and armoured vehicles and the deployment of Russian helicopters, in what was described as the fiercest combat in months.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group with wide contacts inside Syria, said Russian fighter jets also bombed targets in the province of Idlib, most of which is held by a coalition of rebels known as Jaysh al-Fateh, which includes the al-Qaeda wing in Syria.
The Syrian push on the ground is the first time Mr Assad’s forces have co-ordinated with the Russian airforce in an attempt to seize lost territory from opposition forces, ushering in some of the fiercest fighting in months in the civil war, which has now lasted four and a half years and killed over a quarter of a million people.
The assault mirrors the US strategy in northern Syria, where coalition planes bombed Islamic State positions to pave the way for their allies on the ground to advance against the militants. It also poses the question of how much territory the regime’s army, exhausted and depleted by the conflict, can seize from the rebels.
Most of the fighting appeared to be concentrated in Hama, a central province with a majority Sunni capital that has remained in the hands of the regime since the start of the war, and which is key to Assad’s strategy of cementing control over major population centres in a strip of territory from Latakia in the north, through to Homs and Hama and Damascus.
Rebels recently attempted to wrest control of the strategic al-Ghab plain in Hama’s countryside, drawing closer to Mr Assad’s coastal strongholds, and the Russian strategy seems primarily aimed at securing this territory from further incursions.
Jaysh al-Fateh conquered most of Idlib in a spring offensive, forcing the regime to abandon the province. Russian air strikes have repeatedly targeted the province over the past week, though there is no known Islamic State presence in the area.
The Syrian observatory said Russian planes also bombed targets on the outskirts of the historic city of Palmyra, which was seized by Islamic State in May, and the town of Qaryatain, which was also seized by the militants this summer and whose Christian residents have either been taken hostage or fled.
Syrian state TV said air strikes also hit Islamic State positions in northern Aleppo.
Still, it is unclear if the Assad regime will be able to score major ground advances against the rebels after years of vicious warfare that has sapped his armed forces, and amid widespread dereliction of duty among its conscripts, while facing rebels who are united by their anger at the Russian intervention.
“Russia is primarily targeting opposition fighters, and this could end any future peace process in Syria and strengthen the role of Islamic State and the extreme factions that do not want peace, whether they support or oppose the regime,” said SOHR director Rami Abdul Rahman.
The latest air strikes and ground assault come amid heightened tensions between Russia and Nato, after a Russian fighter plane penetrated Turkish airspace over the weekend, sparking protests and condemnation from the alliance with pledges to respond to future incursions.
The Russian ministry of defence said it was continuing to consult with Turkey to ensure there would be no repetition of the incident.
The head of the Iraqi parliament’s defence and security committee said Iraq may request Russian air strikes against Isis on its soil soon, and wants Moscow to have a bigger role than the US in the war against the group.
“We might be forced to ask Russia to launch air strikes in Iraq soon. I think the upcoming few days or weeks Iraq will be forced to ask Russia to launch air strikes and that depends on their success in Syria,” Hakim al-Zamili told Reuters.