London: The Assad regime yesterday (Wednesday) launched a major ground offensive against rebel forces in western and central Syria, backed by a barrage of Russian cruise missiles and air strikes in the first co-ordinated assault by the allies.
Fighting raged heaviest in the regime-held province of Hama, where US-backed Free Syrian Army rebels destroyed several tanks and held their ground against strafing helicopters.
Some 900 miles away in the Caspian Sea, Russian warships sent dozens of cruise missiles to join the fray. Russia’s defence ministry said they had struck 11 Isil positions, while an official video appeared to show they had hit rebel-held territory in Aleppo and Idlib.
The deployment of cruise missiles and air strikes marked a significant escalation of the campaign to shield the regime from rebel forces. It was the first time operations had been openly co-ordinated with forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad, one of the Kremlin’s only remaining allies in the Middle East.
Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, said that air and ground offensives would be “synchronised”.
Moscow has justified its military campaign as a move against Isil, but air strikes have focused on the belt around the Syrian regime’s western heartland, hitting non-Isil groups and causing dozens of civilian casualties.
Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish prime minister, said yesterday that only two Russian air strikes had hit Isil territory to date, according to intelligence assessments.
It has also emerged that Russian fighter jets entered the flight path of US predator drones over Syria on at least three separate occasions last week.
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