Russia launched a volley of missiles on Wednesday from warships in the Caspian Sea to strike targets in Syria. The use of 26 sea-based cruise missiles was one of the first known uses in combat of Russian missiles with this range. A video published by the Russian Defense Ministry purports to show missile launches from the Caspian Sea.
Russian Cruise Missiles Help Syrians Go on the Offensive
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Russia and Syria unleashed a coordinated assault by land, air and sea on Wednesday, seeking to reverse recent gains by rebel groups that were beginning to encroach on the Syrian coast, a critical bastion of power for President Bashar al-Assad.
Moscow said it had fired 26 cruise missiles at Syrian targets from naval vessels in the Caspian Sea, 900 miles away, though it was not immediately clear whether they had struck in the area of the ground offensive.
Although in its early stages, the coordinated attack has revealed the outline of a newly deepened and operationally coordinated alliance among Syria, Iran, Russia and the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, according to an official with the alliance, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss military strategy.
The official said the Russian intervention — a result of plans by the four allies over at least four to six months — had rejuvenated Syrian government forces and put to rest any doubts about Russia’s commitment to the Syrian president.
Despite Western calls for his departure, Mr. Assad remains in power more than four years into a war that has killed a quarter of a million people and displaced half the country.
“No more questions,” the official said in tones of renewed confidence and optimism. “Not at any level.”
For Mr. Assad’s supporters and opponents alike, regionally and internationally, Russia’s increasing willingness to throw its full military power behind him is a game-changer. For his supporters, it gives a respite to depleted ranks of fighters and bolsters morale. For his opponents, it means taking on a vastly stronger foe and severely constrains options — for instance, virtually ruling out the imposition of a no-fly zone or buffer zone along the border with Turkey.
Russia has focused its earliest operations on the insurgent coalition known as the Army of Conquest, or Jaish al-Fatah, rather than on the Islamic State, according to the official from the pro-government alliance, because it is the Army of Conquest’s positions that most urgently threaten the crucial government-held coastal province of Latakia, while Islamic State forces are farther to the east and can later be isolated and hit. Latakia is Mr. Assad’s family’s ancestral home and the heartland of his fellow Alawites, who provide a critical bloc of support.
Wednesday was the first time since the spring that the government’s forces had moved “from defense to offense,” the official said.
The assault seemed to focus on an area straddling northern Hama Province and southern Idlib Province, where insurgent command of high ground threatens the coast. The initial ground attacks took place around three villages that insurgents consider the first line of defense of the strategic Jebel al-Zawiyah area.
The bombardment appeared to reach new levels of intensity in some places. One video showed white smoke rising far above a village’s minarets, while another appeared to show at least a dozen explosions — the person filming described the weapons as rockets — in less than five minutes.
A number of times in Wednesday’s fighting, insurgents fired advanced TOW antitank missiles, supplied covertly by the C.I.A., at Syria’s Russian-made tanks, leaving the impression of a proxy war between Russia and the United States. Rebel groups, including two that have received American aid, Division 13 and Suqour al-Ghab, posted videos that showed the guided missiles sailing toward approaching tanks and destroying them.The main thrust of the offensive was aimed at areas held by insurgent groups that oppose both Mr. Assad and the Islamic State, including the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. But there were airstrikes elsewhere in Syria, according to SANA, the state news agency, which said that Syrian and Russian warplanes had worked together to attack targets in Al Bab, a city in eastern Aleppo Province long held by the Islamic State.
While Russian officials said the missiles launched from the Caspian Sea had targeted the Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL, Western officials said the great majority of the attacks had been directed against rebel groups fighting Mr. Assad. There were no reports of large explosions in Islamic State-held areas to the east, making it less likely that the cruise missiles had hit the group’s strongholds.
The news of the missile attacks came in a televised meeting between the Russian defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, and PresidentVladimir V. Putin.
“That we fired from the territory of the Caspian Sea, at a range greater than 1,500 kilometers, and hit targets precisely, this shows high qualifications,” Mr. Putin said, referring to naval crew members. Mr. Shoigu said no civilians had been injured.
The ground operation will eventually widen to include new contingents of fighters from Hezbollah, which has long played a key role on the front lines, as well as the current configuration of Syrian forces backed by Russians in the air, according to the alliance official. In addition, Iranian military advisers have been active on the ground in Syria and would most likely be involved in such a crucial operation.
There were no reports of Russians’ joining in the fighting, though an official refused to rule out the possibility of “volunteers” becoming involved.
The ground offensive is meant first to push the insurgents out of northern Hama Province, and then to move north into Idlib Province, according to the official and to diplomats and analysts in the region. In addition to Jebel al-Zawiyah, the government is trying to reclaim Jisr al-Shoughour, a city in Idlib that insurgents captured in March, a victory that was considered an ominous sign for the Syrian government.
The Army of Conquest is an Islamist coalition that includes the Nusra Front. Often fighting alongside it are more secular groups calling themselves the Free Syrian Army, including some that have received American aid. Russia has so far refused to make a distinction between the Army of Conquest and the Islamic State, labeling both groups as terrorists. Some Free Syrian Army groups have been hit in Russian strikes.
On Wednesday, insurgents said they had managed to blunt the start of the new ground offensive. “The regime stopped progressing, but the mortars are still hitting us,” said Abu Imad, a fighter with the Islamist group Jund al-Aqsa, who gave only a nom de guerre for safety. He said a united response by several rebel factions had helped repel the attack.
One fighter with Division 13 was being hailed as the “TOW king” after he was said to have destroyed four tanks using TOW missiles. Activists circulated pictures of him beaming over a celebratory meal and of other fighters riding in a captured tank.
When asked at a news conference in Rome about the ground offensive, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter lamented “the Assad regime’s use of violence against its own people.”
Mr. Carter added, “To the extent that Russia enables that, that’s the fundamental reason we believe Russia is making a mistake in their actions in Syria.”
U.S. and Russian Airstrikes Show Divergent Strategies
The pattern of Russian and American airstrikes in Syria leaves little question about the divergent goals of the two countries. Both countries have said they want to defeat terrorist groups like the Islamic State, but in Syria, Russia’s definition of terrorist encompasses some groups that are allies of the United States.
The war has displaced 7.6 million people inside Syria and pushed 3.9 million more — half of them children — to seek refuge in other countries, according to figures collected by United Nations agencies.
Syria After Four Years of Mayhem
A four-year conflict has dismembered Syria, inflaming the region with one of the world’s worst religious and sectarian wars. Most of its major cities are in shambles, and more than 200,000 people have been killed. Nearly half of Syria’s residents have been forced to flee their homes.
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