DAMASCUS — Russian warships in the Caspian Sea fired cruise missiles today as Syrian government troops launched a ground offensive in central Syria in the first major combined air-and-ground assault since Moscow began its military campaign in the country last week.
The missiles flew nearly 930 miles over Iran and Iraq and struck Raqqa and Aleppo provinces in the north and Idlib province in the north-west, Russian officials said. The Islamic State group has strongholds in Raqqa and Aleppo, while the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front has a strong presence in Idlib.
United States Defence Secretary Ash Carter said Russia was continuing to strike targets other than Islamic State militants, adding that he was concerned about the Syrian ground offensive backed by Moscow’s air power.
The latest developments came a week after Russia began air strikes in Syria, its long-time ally, on September 30, and added a new dimension to the complex war that has torn apart the Middle East country since 2011.
Activists and rebels say the targets have included Western-backed fighters and other groups opposed to President Bashar Assad.
A Syrian official and activists said government troops pushed into areas in the central province of Hama and south of Idlib in the boldest multipronged attack on rebel-held areas, benefiting from the Russian air cover. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Moscow has mainly targeted central and north-western Syria, strategic regions that are the gateway to Assad’s strongholds in Damascus, and along the Mediterranean coast where Russia has a naval base.
The Russian air strikes appear to have emboldened Syrian troops to launch the ground push after a series of setbacks in north-western Syria in recent months.
The Islamic State group is not present in the areas where the ground fighting is under way.
The offensive in central Syria and the ensuing clashes with militants, including the Nusra Front, was the first major ground fighting since the Russian campaign began.
Appearing on television with President Vladimir Putin, Russia’s Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu said 26 missile strikes were conducted from four warships in the Caspian. Shoigu insisted the operation destroyed all the targets and did not launch any strikes on civilian areas.
The launches marked the combat debut of the Russian Kalibr long-range cruise missiles, equivalent to American Tomahawk missiles.
“The fact that we launched precision weapons from the Caspian Sea to the distance of about 1,500 kilometres and hit all the designated targets shows good work by military industrial plants and good skills of personnel,” Putin said.
Andrei Kartapolov of the Russian General Staff told Russian news agencies the strikes were planned so that the cruise missiles would fly “over unpopulated areas”. Shoigu also said Russia had carried out 112 airstrikes on IS positions since September 30.
Iranian state TV, citing Russian media, reported that the Russian missiles flew through Iran’s airspace and hit targets in Syria.
“The Russian military operation in support of the Syrian army continued at new higher technological level,” said Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, adding that the Syrian army began an offensive “with our fire support”.
The British-based Syrian Observatory For Human Rights said a government offensive began early today on four fronts in Idlib and neighbouring Hama provinces in what the group’s director Rami Abdurrahman called “the most intense fighting in months”.
In Syria, the leader of an American-backed rebel group Tajammu Alezzah confirmed the ground offensive in a text message to The Associated Press, saying Russian and Iranian soldiers were involved in the operation.
Russian officials deny sending any ground troops to the battlefield. Iran has been bolstering Assad by sending weapons and advisers, and helping arrange the deployment of Shiite fighters from Iraq and Hezbollah, as well as sending financial aid.