Russia unleashes missiles on Syria targets; NATO warns of ‘escalation’
BEIRUT - Russia unleashed a barrage of cruise missiles from warships in the Caspian Sea against rebel forces in Syria, sharply escalating Moscow’s armed intervention in an already complex, multisided war, and NATO warned that it was prepared to send troops, if needed, to defend Turkey after Russian warplanes twice violated the member state’s airspace.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg declared on October 8th in Brussels where the 28-member alliance was holding an emergency meeting: “In Syria, we’ve seen a troubling escalation of Russian military activities.” He branded Russia’s actions as “reasons for concern”.
The broadside of 26 Kalibr long-range missiles, the equivalent of the Tomahawk cruise missiles that are the US weapon of choice in American interventions, flew 1,400 kilometres — over Iran and Iraq — before hitting 11 Islamic State (ISIS) positions in Syria’s Raqqa and Aleppo provinces in the north and the Idlib governorate in the north-west, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said in Moscow.
The October 7th missile bombardment, along with a wave of Russian air strikes, was clearly intended to soften rebel strong points amid a major offensive by the Syrian Army and Iranian-backed Shia militias and Hezbollah.
The push, one of the biggest regime operations in months, was launched October 6th in central Hama province to regain territory conquered by the opposition in recent months and which threaten the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists across Syria that monitors the four-and-a-half-year-old conflict, reported “the most intense fighting in months” in Hama and Idlib provinces in the first coordinated government offensive since the Russian air campaign began September 30th.
It is not clear why the Russians chose to unleash the cruise missiles, which added a new complication to the swelling air war in Syrian skies. Several regional analysts told The Arab Weekly they suspect it was to demonstrate Russian power, not just to the Syrian rebels, but to the United States and Arab states backing Assad’s foes.
The alleged Russian incursions into Turkish airspace in the same region where Russian Sukhoi warplanes have been hammering rebel groups underlined the growing dangers that Turkey, along with other countries of the region which want to depose the Iranian-backed Assad, could be dragged into the war.
Stoltenberg denounced the “unacceptable violations of Turkish airspace” on October 5th and 6th and demanded Russia immediately cease such aerial incursions.
Speaking in Brussels, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, one of Assad’s most virulent foes, warned the incidents threaten to escalate regional tensions triggered by Russia’s air strikes from a base at Latakia, an Assad stronghold, to preventing the Damascus regime from collapsing.
“We cannot endure it,” Erdogan cautioned. This suggested Turkey could step up its support for Islamic rebel groups who are poised to push into Latakia province on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, the heartland of Assad’s minority Alawite sect.