Russia targets IS as Syria begins ground offensive

Iraqi anti-terrorism forces watch Islamic State movements after regaining control of the Ramadi stadium and al-Bugleeb area of Anbar. Picture: AP

Iraqi anti-terrorism forces watch Islamic State movements after regaining control of the Ramadi stadium and al-Bugleeb area of Anbar. Picture: AP

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RUSSIAN warships in the Caspian Sea fired cruise missiles 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, launched from a Russian flotilla in the Caspian Sea, travelled 900 miles over “unpopulated areas” to target militants, according to a Russian officer.

The latest developments – exactly a week after Russia began launching air strikes in Syria – add a new layer to the fray in the complex war that has torn the Middle East country apart since 2011.

Moscow has mainly targeted central and north-west Syria, strategic regions that are the gateway to President Bashar al-Assad’s strongholds in Damascus, and along the Mediterranean coast. But the strikes appear to have given Mr Assad new confidence to try to retake some lost ground. According to the Syrian official, the government push is concentrated in the adjacent provinces of Hama and Idlib where rebels have been advancing in past months.

Islamic State is not present in the areas where the fighting is under way.

Yesterday’s offensive in central Syria and the ensuing clashes with militants, including al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, was the first major ground fighting since Moscow began launching air raids in Syria last week.

The Russian air strikes appear to have emboldened Syrian troops to launch the ground push after a string of setbacks over the past few months.

In Moscow, Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu said Russia is using warships in the Caspian Sea to target IS in Syria.

Mr Shoigu told President Vladimir Putin in televised remarks that Russia yesterday carried out 26 missile strikes from four warships of its Caspian Sea flotilla.

Mr Shoigu insisted the operation destroyed all the targets and did not launch any strikes upon civilian areas.

Andrei Kartapolov, of the Russian General Staff, told Russian news agencies that Russia had planned the missile strikes from the warships so that they would be flying “over unpopulated areas”.

Mr Shoigu also said Russia has carried out 112 air strikes on IS positions since its operation began on 30 September.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a government offensive began on four fronts in the north-western provinces of Idlib and neighbouring Hama. Director Rami Abdurrahman described it as “the most intense fighting in months.”

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