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Assad’s army starts ground campaign backed by Russian air strikes

Moscow says it is synchronising its strikes with the Syrian army’s ground movements.

A Russian warship launched missiles earlier today
A Russian warship launched missiles earlier today
Image: Russian Defence Ministry

HEAVY RUSSIAN AERIAL bombing and cruise missile strikes launched from warships in the Caspian Sea today provided cover for a major Syrian army ground offensive in a coordinated attack on rebels.

Amid a dramatic escalation in its air war over Syria, Moscow said it was ready to establish contacts with Western-backed rebels, which the United States and its allies accuse Russia of targeting in bombing raids.

But the announcement came as Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow had begun synchronising its strikes with the Syrian army’s ground movements.

Putin also announced for the first time that four Russian warships had struck IS targets with 26 cruise missiles.

A video map released by Russia’s defence ministry showed the missiles launched from warships in the southern Caspian Sea and flying close to 1,500 kilometres (930 miles) through Iranian and Iraqi airspace before hitting targets in Syria.

A Syrian military source told AFP that government troops began a broad ground operation earlier today near the village of Latmeen in Hama province, aided by Russian air cover.

Turkey Russia Syria A Russian warship passes through the Bosphorus, in Istanbul, en route to the Mediterranean Sea yesterday. Source: AP/Press Association Images

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Russian planes had carried out at least 37 strikes on Wednesday in Hama 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 to target the neighbouring regime stronghold of Latakia province.

In Moscow, Putin said Russian strikes would “be synchronised with the actions of the Syrian army on the ground” to support the regime’s offensive operations.

Russia has said that its forces have hit 112 targets since its operations in Syria – which it insists target IS and other “terrorist groups” - began on 30 September.

But Syrian rebels and their backers say a range of opposition fighters, not just jihadists, have been hit.

The ground operation in Hama targets rebels from a range of groups, including moderate and Islamist opposition fighters as well as Al-Nusra.

And on Wednesday the US-backed Suqur al-Jabal rebel group in the northern province of Aleppo said its arm depots had been destroyed in Russian raids.

Greece Migrants Migrants and refugees rush to get on a bus after their arrival from the Greek island of Lesbos at the Athens' port of Piraeus. Source: Yorgos Karahalis/AP/Press Association Images

US denies cooperating with Russia 

The Russian campaign has raised hackles in Turkey, 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.

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Turkey has protested the violations, backed by the NATO alliance to which it belongs, and warned Russia against losing its friendship with Ankara, which has been tested over Syria.

Ankara backs the opposition, while Russia has been a staunch regime ally throughout the conflict that began in March 2011 and has so far killed more than 240,000 people.

Russia Turkey Putin shakes hands with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last month. Source: Ivan Sekretarev/AP/Press Association Images

Tensions between Russia and the United States also escalated today, with Defence Secretary Ash Carter insisting that the US is not cooperating with Russia over Moscow’s air campaign.

“I have said before that we believed that Russia has the wrong strategy – they continue to hit targets that are not ISIL. We believe this is a fundamental mistake,” Carter told a press conference in Rome.

Meanwhile, French President Francois Hollande warned that failure to act in Syria risked “total war” in the Middle East.

“If we leave these religious clashes between Sunnis and Shiites, they will grow. Don’t think we will be sheltered, this will be a total war,” he said in a speech to the European Parliament.

Putin said today that 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”, but a member of Hollande’s entourage quickly rebutted the claim.

- © AFP, 2015

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