Assad Begins Ground Offensive, Backed by Russian Air and Sea Power

Assad and Putin Mikhail KlimentyevAP
Mikhail Klimentyev/AP

After several days of pounding enemies of the Assad regime from the air—with a preference for bombing forces trained by the CIA and backed by the United States—Russia kicked in a swarm of 26 cruise missiles launched by its Caspian Sea fleet, some 900 miles away. After the Kurds got to enjoy the spectacle of these missiles soaring through their airspace, the Syrian ground offensive began.

“News reports and video of fighting uploaded to the Internet on Wednesday showed that the Syrian army was moving from the city of Hama toward Idlib, a stronghold held by a coalition of mostly Islamist rebels,” the Washington Post reports.

Reuters relays reports from the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that the combined Syrian-Russian operation “hit towns close to the main north-south highway that runs through major cities in the mainly government-held west of Syria.”

“Ground attacks by Syrian government forces and their militia allies using heavy surface-to-surface missile bombardments hit at least four insurgent positions and there were heavy clashes,” according to the Observatory. Iran-backed Hezbollah units also took part in the action.

Despite all this firepower and combined arms on the ground, the troops appear to have taken little territory. Regime forces “briefly entered one town, but were forced to pull back,” with “around 15 of their tanks or armored vehicles had been either destroyed or disabled,” according to SOHR director Rami Abdulrahman.

As for who, exactly, the Syrians are fighting with Russian air and naval support, the Washington Post describes a video that appears to show members of the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army firing anti-tank missiles at the advancing regime forces.

Russian president Vladimir Putin invited the Free Syrian Army to throw in with Syrian government forces and fight ISIS, which would seem inconsistent with the “rebellion” Syria’s “moderate rebels” have been attempting to conduct for the past several years. As the AFP news service notes, this outreach represents a substantial change from previous Russian policy, which held that no such entity as the Free Syrian Army even existed.

“The ground operation in Hama targets rebels from a range from groups, including moderate and Islamist opposition fighters as well as Al-Nusra,” writes AFP, the latter a reference to the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria, the Nusra Front. “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.”

The government of Turkey says it has reviewed 57 of Russia’s air strikes and concluded that only two of them hit Islamic State targets.

The Reuters report also mentions that Turkey once again complained about Russian or Syrian combat jets violating their airspace. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov formally apologized to the Turkish government for one incident that took a Russian jet 20 miles into Turkish territory, describing it as a “mistake.”

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports that U.S. military aircraft have been rerouted to avoid Russian air strikes. However, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter insisted the United States was not cooperating with Russia’s war plans.

“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,” said Carter at a press conference in Rome on Wednesday.

NBC News reports Russia is moving artillery and ground troops towards the city of Hama, prompting a senior defense official to sigh, “So much for fighting ISIS.”

AFP reports French president Francois Hollande warning the European Parliament, “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.”