Russia fires cruise missiles to back Syria army attack

Ground assault on rebels coordinated, Putin says 4 warships hit ISIS targets with missiles

BEIRUT • Syrian regime forces, supported by heavy Russian aerial bombing and cruise missile strikes from warships, launched a major ground offensive against rebels in a coordinated attack.

Moscow said that it was synchronising its air raids with Syrian army movements on the ground, while Russian President Vladimir Putin also announced for the first time that four warships from its Caspian Sea fleet had struck Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) targets with cruise missiles.

In a sign of Russia ramping up its offensive, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said that the ships launched 26 cruise missile strikes against 11 targets. "Strikes have hit 112 targets from Sept 30 until today," he said in a televised briefing with Mr Putin. "The intensity of the strikes is increasing."

A Syrian military source also said that government troops and allied forces had begun a broad ground operation yesterday in the central province of Hama with Russian air cover.

The operation centres on the village of Latmeen, with Russian planes carrying out dozens of strikes on the village and surrounding areas, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.


PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The Britain-based monitor reported at least 37 Russian strikes yesterday in Hama province and neighbouring Idlib province, which is controlled by the powerful Army of Conquest alliance that includes Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front.

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Strikes have hit 112 targets from Sept 30 until today. The intensity of the strikes is increasing.

RUSSIAN DEFENCE MINISTER SERGEI SHOIGU (above)

The rebel alliance has sought to expand into Hama from Idlib and seize high ground that could be used to target the neighbouring regime stronghold of Latakia province. "The Syrian army in its latest operations is working on cutting off the southern parts of Idlib province from the northern parts of Hama province," a military source in Hama said.

While Russia has said its week-old air campaign targets ISIS and other "terrorist" groups, Syrian rebels and their backers say that a range of opposition fighters, not just ISIS militants, have been hit.

Yesterday, a United States-backed rebel group in the northern province of Aleppo said its arm depots had been destroyed in Russian raids.

Turkey's Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu also alleged yesterday that just two out of 57 Russian strikes examined by Turkish intelligence had hit ISIS.

But Russia insisted that the 26 rockets fired by its warships earlier in the day had struck targets associated with ISIS and Al-Nusra, the Interfax news agency reported.

In the televised meeting with Mr Shoigu yesterday, Mr Putin also stressed the need for cooperation with a US-led coalition fighting ISIS militants, saying that without cooperation from the US, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the intervention was unlikely to work.

In his strongest comments on the issue yet, US Defence Secretary Ash Carter insisted again that the United States will not cooperate militarily with Russia in Syria because Moscow's strategy is"tragically flawed".

However, he said that the US is willing to hold basic, technical discussions with the Russians to try to secure pilot safety.

"We are not prepared to cooperate in a strategy which as we explained is flawed, tragically flawed, on Russia's part," Mr Carter said during a trip to Rome, renewing US accusations that Russia's strikes were not focused on ISIS militants.

Russia's air campaign has raised concern among other backers of the rebels, including France.

Mr Putin claimed that his French counterpart Francois Hollande had proposed "to at least try to unite the efforts of the government troops of President Bashar al-Assad's army and the so-called (rebel) Free Syrian Army".

A member of Mr Hollande's entourage quickly rebutted those claims, saying that any suggestion of a regime-rebel alliance was "not a French idea".

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 08, 2015, with the headline 'Russia fires cruise missiles to back Syria army attack'. Print Edition | Subscribe