Russian airstrikes have destroyed the main weapons depots of a US-trained rebel group in Syria, their commander said on Wednesday, and the aerial assault was backed by ground attacks by Syrian army and allied militia on insurgent positions, according to a monitor.
Moscow's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu also told President Vladimir Putin during a televised meeting today that four Russian warships in the Caspian Sea had launched 26 rockets at Islamic State (IS) targets in Syria.
The missiles would have passed over Iran and Iraq to reach their targets, covering what Shoigu described as a distance of almost 900 miles, the latest display of Russian military power at a time when relations with the West are at a post-Cold War low over Ukraine.
The terrain-hugging Kalibr cruise missiles, known by NATO by the codename Sizzler, fly at an altitude of 50 meters (165 feet) and are accurate to within three metres, the Russian defence ministry said.
The Russian Navy launches airstrikes into Syria. Video via Russian Defense Ministry
Meanwhile, across the border in Iraq, politicians said they may soon call for Russia to begin airstrikes against the Islamic State (IS) group there.
The Russian airstrikes in Syria hit northern parts of Hama province and nearby areas in Idlib province, targeting towns close to the main north-south highway that runs through major cities in the west of the country, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said.
Hassan Haj Ali, commander of the CIA-trained Liwa Suqour al-Jabal, claimed that the strikes had destroyed the group's main weapons depots.
Ground attacks using heavy surface-to-surface missile bombardments targeted at least four insurgent positions in the area and there were heavy clashes on the ground, the head of SOHR Rami Abdulrahman said.
Although Wednesday's combined assault marked a military escalation, it was not immediately clear whether there would be rapid gains in a conflict that has already dragged on more than four years.
"There is no information yet of any (government) advances on the ground, but the airstrikes have hit vehicles and insurgent bases," Abdulrahman said.
A regional source familiar with the military situation in Syria said forces including Hezbollah fighters were taking part in the ground attack against four rebel-held areas.
Iraq may also request Russian strikes against IS militants on its soil soon and wants Moscow to have a bigger role than the US in the war against the group, the head of parliament's defence and security committee said on Wednesday.
"We might be forced to ask Russia to launch air strikes in Iraq soon. I think the upcoming few days or weeks Iraq will be forced to ask Russia to launch air strikes and that depends on their success in Syria," Hakim al-Zamili said today.
"We are seeking to see Russia have a bigger role in Iraq… Yes, definitely a bigger role than the Americans," he added.
This footage, from a local media activist, is described as showing Russian strikes on al-Lataminah.
Reuters reported last week that allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, including Iranians, were preparing a ground attack in Syria, aimed at recapturing territory lost by the government to rebels in rapid advances this year.
Abdulrahman, who tracks the conflict using sources in Syria, said the ground assault was being carried out by "regime forces" and their allies, with no immediate sign of Russian involvement on the ground.
Yet airstrikes on Liwa Suqour al-Jabal appear to be an expansion of Moscow's attacks on insurgents backed by foreign enemies of Assad. The group's fighters have attended military training organized by the CIA in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, was also hit last week by Russian raids as Moscow began its air campaign in support of Damascus.
New strikes targeted the group's main weapons depots in western Aleppo province and completely destroyed them late on Tuesday, Ali told Reuters on Wednesday.
"These were considered the principal depots of the Liwa," he said in an audio recording obtained separately.
Liwa Suqour al-Jabal operates areas of western and northern Syria where many of Russia's airstrikes have been focused and where IS — the stated target of the Russian air raids — has no significant presence.
It is one of a number of Syrian rebel groups deemed moderate by the United States which have received training as part of an ostensibly covert CIA program. That is separate to one set up by the Pentagon to train and equip Syrian insurgents to fight IS.
Liwa Suqour al-Jabal has also been battling attempts by IS to advance in areas north of Aleppo near the Turkish border. Haj Ali said IS had also attacked the group on Tuesday, setting off a car bomb at one of its bases.
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