Syria regime forces launch major offensive with Russia air cover
BEIRUT - Syrian regime forces, supported by heavy Russian aerial bombing and cruise missile strikes from warships, launched a major ground offensive against rebels Wednesday in a coordinated attack.
Moscow said it was synchronising its air raids with Syrian army movements on the ground, and announced that four ships from its Caspian Sea fleet had joined in strikes on Islamic State group targets.
A Syrian military source said that government troops and allied forces had begun a broad ground operation on Wednesday in the central province of Hama with Russian air cover.
The operation centres around 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.
The Britain-based monitor reported at least 37 Russian strikes on Wednesday 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.
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.
He added the operations were also intended to begin securing the major highway between Aleppo and Damascus, which runs near Latmeen and surrounding villages but is severed in several places further north by rebels.
In Moscow, Putin said Russian strikes would "be synchronised with the actions of the Syrian army on the ground and the actions of our air force will effectively support the offensive operation of the Syrian army."
He also announced for the first time that four Russian warships had struck ISIS targets with cruise missiles on Wednesday.
Russia's defence ministry meanwhile said its forces had hit 112 targets since its operations in Syria began on September 30.
While Russia has said its week-old air campaign targets ISIS and other "terrorist" groups, Syrian rebels and their backers say a range of opposition fighters, not just jihadists, have been hit.
The ground operation under way in Hama targets rebels from a range from groups, including moderate and Islamist opposition fighters as well as Al-Nusra.
And on Wednesday a US-backed rebel group in the northern province of Aleppo said its arm depots had been destroyed in Russian raids.
A spokesman for the Suqur al-Jabal group said its bases in western Aleppo were hit on Tuesday and its arms stores wiped out.
The group last week accused Russia of targeting its bases in Idlib.
On Wednesday, Turkey's Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu alleged just two out of 57 Russian strikes examined by Turkish intelligence had hit ISIS.
The Russian campaign has raised hackles in Ankara, which accuses Moscow of violating its airspace from Syria on at least two occasions over the weekend.
It also reported a violation by a MIG-29 jet of unknown nationality on Monday.
Turkey has protested the violations, backed by the NATO alliance to which it belongs, and warned Russia against losing its friendship with Ankara.
Davutoglu said Wednesday that his country would not compromise on its border security.
"We will not make any concessions in the context of our border and airspace security," he said.
"We do not want any tensions with Russia but as I say, it is our most natural right to expect Russia to be careful about Turkey's airspace, borders and Turkey's interests in Syria," he added.
Turkey has a friendly relationship with Russia, but is at loggerheads with Moscow over Syria.
Ankara backs the opposition, while Russia has been a staunch regime ally throughout the conflict that began with anti-government protests in March 2011 and has so far killed more than 240,000 people.
Davutoglu said Wednesday that Moscow's strikes appeared to mostly target moderate rebels backed by Ankara and Washington.
"If there's going to be a fight against Daesh, let's do it together," he said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
Russia's air campaign has also raised concern among other opposition backers, including France.
Putin on Wednesday claimed his French counterpart Francois Hollande had proposed "to at least try to unite the efforts of the government troops of President Assad's army and the so-called (rebel) Free Syrian Army."
A member of Hollande's entourage quickly rebutted those claims, saying any suggestion of a regime-rebel alliance was "not a French idea".