Syrian troops and allied militia, backed by Russian air strikes and cruise missiles fired from warships, attacked rebels forces yesterday as the government extended a major offensive to recapture territory in the west of the country.
Rebel advances in western Syria earlier this year had threatened the coastal region vital to president Bashar al-Assad’s control of the area and prompted Russia’s intervention on his side last week.
In a further show of force, the Russian defence ministry said missiles fired from its ships in the Caspian Sea hit weapons’ factories, arms dumps, command centres and training camps supporting IS forces.
US sources, however, last night said some of the Russian missiles crashed off-target in Iran.
The White House declined to comment, and Russia’s defence ministry said: “We do not talk with reference to anonymous sources. We show the launch of our rockets and the targets they struck.”
Ground forces loyal to the Assad government targeted insurgents in the Ghab Plain area of western Syria, with heavy barrages of surface-to-surface missiles as Russian warplanes bombed from above, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a rebel fighting there.
Syrian armed forces “have launched wide-ranging attacks to deal with the terrorist groups, and to liberate the areas which had suffered from the terrorist rule and crimes”, the army Chief of Staff, Lt Gen Ali Abdullah Ayoub, was quoted as saying.
Ayoub did not say which areas were being targeted. He said new fighting units, including one called the Fourth Assault Corps, had been set up to wage the campaign and the army now held the military initiative.
The Observatory’s head, Rami Abdulrahman, said an assault launched by the army and its foreign allies yesterday in nearby areas of Hama province had so far failed to make significant gains, however.
“At least 13 regime forces were killed. The clashes also killed 11 [rebel] fighters”, he said, and the numbers were expected to rise as more casualties were confirmed.
Around 15 army tanks and armoured vehicles had been destroyed or immobilised by rebel missile strikes, Abdulrahman and an opposition activist on the ground said.
Wednesday’s operation in Hama seemed to be the first major assault co-ordinated between Syrian forces on the ground, and Russian warplanes and ships.
Russian air strikes began last week and have mostly focused in areas of western Syria, where Assad has sought to shore up his control after losing swathes of the rest of the country to insurgents, including Islamic State (IS).
Russia says it is fighting IS in Syria, but while the group has been the target of some air strikes, it has no foothold in the areas targeted on Wednesday and yesterday.