Syria Army in Vast Offensive

Syria Army in Vast Offensive Syria Army in Vast Offensive

Syrian troops backed by Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Russian airstrikes advanced Thursday in western Syria in a “vast offensive” against rebels, as NATO voiced alarm at Moscow’s escalating military activity in the country.

Russia has dramatically stepped up its nine-day-old air war against foes of President Bashar al-Assad, with heavy bombing by warplanes and cruise missile strikes from the Caspian Sea.

A US official said four Russian missiles launched at Syria from warships Wednesday had crashed in Iran, but that was denied by Moscow, AFP reported.

A Syrian military source told AFP that the country’s forces had advanced in a key mountain range.

“They have seized most of the hilly region of Jeb al-Ahmar,” which overlooks the strategic Sahl al-Ghab plain to the east and Assad’s coastal stronghold of Latakia to the west, the source said.

The plain has been the focus of a months-long offensive by an alliance, including Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Al-Nusra Front.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group, confirmed that Syrian forces had advanced in the area.

But Washington has accused Russia of targeting groups other than IS or Al-Nusra in more than 90% of its raids.

In Moscow, the defense ministry said Russia’s air force hit 27 “terrorist” targets in central and northern Syria Wednesday night.

The ministry said it had destroyed eight IS strongholds near populated areas in Homs Province, and hit 11 training camps linked to the group in Hama and Raqqa provinces.

But Defense Ministry Spokesman General Igor Konashenkov said in Moscow that “any professional knows that during these operations, we always fix the target before and after impact. All our cruise missiles hit their target.”

 “Consequences for Russia”

Meanwhile, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter forecast Thursday Russia would soon begin to suffer casualties of its own.

“This will have consequences for Russia itself which is rightly fearful of attacks ... In coming days, the Russians will begin to suffer from casualties,” Carter said at a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said there had been a “troubling escalation” in Moscow’s air campaign.

“We will assess the latest developments and their implications for the security of the alliance. This is particularly relevant in view of the recent violations of NATO’s airspace by Russian aircraft,” Stoltenberg said.

Tensions between Russia and NATO member Turkey shot up this week after Russian aircraft infringed on Turkish airspace at least twice.

The army appeared to regain ground Thursday, after chief of staff General Ali Abdullah Ayoub announced “a vast offensive to defeat the terrorist groups” and restore control over opposition-held areas.

Although Ayoub did not specify where the operation would take place, state TV said the army had targeted “terrorist positions” in the central province of Hama, killing 32 militants and destroying four armored vehicles.

Russian and Syrian warplanes also conducted “precise strikes” on Al-Nusra positions in Latakia Province, it said.

A military source in the Sahl al-Ghab plain told AFP Russian airstrikes had targeted at least three villages there Thursday morning.