By Sylvia Westall and Dominic Evans
BEIRUT (Reuters) – Russia and Syria carried out what appeared to be the first major coordinated assaults on Syrian insurgents on Wednesday and Moscow said its warships fired 26 missiles at them from the Caspian Sea, a sign of its new military reach.
The combined assault hit towns close to the main north-south highway that runs through major cities in the mainly government-held west of Syria, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based group which tracks the conflict via a network of sources within the country.
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, the head of the Observatory, Rami Abdulrahman, said.
Islamic State militants have seized much of Syria since civil war grew out of anti-government protests in 2011, but the areas targeted in Wednesday’s combined assault are held by other rebels, some U.S.-backed, fuelling allegations by Russia’s critics that its real aim is to help the government.
Moscow says it shares the West’s aim of preventing the spread of Islamic State, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told President Vladimir Putin during a televised meeting that four Russian warships in the Caspian Sea had launched 26 rockets at Islamic State in Syria earlier in the day.
The rockets would have passed over Iran and Iraq to reach their targets, covering what Shoigu described as a distance of almost 1,500 km (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 air campaign in Syria has caught Washington and its allies on the back foot and alarmed Syria’s northern neighbor Turkey, which says its airspace has been repeatedly violated by Russian jets.
Ankara summoned Russia’s ambassador for the third time in four days over the reported violations, which NATO has said appeared to be deliberate and were “extremely dangerous”.
Turkey said Syria-based missile systems harassed its warplanes on Tuesday while eight F-16 jets were on a patrol flight along the Syria border.
IRAQ LOOKS TO RUSSIA
Syrian state media made no mention of the reported coordinated Russian-Syrian attacks in western areas, saying instead that Russian aircraft had targeted Islamic State positions around Aleppo.
State television said government forces had targeted IS militants at the Sha’ar gas field and village of Qaryatain in Homs province, as well as Atshan, a town to the east of Russian air force bombardments in Hama province on Wednesday.
In conversation with Shoigu, Putin said it was too early to talk about the results of Russia’s operations in Syria and ordered his minister to continue cooperation with the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq on the crisis.
However, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the United States would not cooperate militarily with Russia in Syria, although it was willing to hold basic, technical discussions to secure the safety of its own pilots bombing IS targets in Syria.
Calling Moscow’s strategy “tragically flawed”, he renewed accusations that the strikes were not focused on Islamic State.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said only two of 57 Russian air strikes in Syria so far had hit Islamic State, while the rest had been against the moderate opposition, the only forces fighting the hard-line insurgents in northwestern Syria.
“If (the Syrian regime) weakens the opposition, it will strengthen Islamic State,” he said, warning of the risk of a new flow of refugees, who have left Syria in their millions, overwhelming neighboring countries and causing a crisis in the European Union.
But in Iraq, the head of parliament’s defense and security committee said Baghdad may request Russian air strikes against Islamic State on its soil soon and wants Moscow to have a bigger role than Washington in fighting the group.
Iraq’s government and powerful Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias question the United States’ resolve in fighting Islamic State militants, who control a third of the country, saying U.S.-led coalition air strikes are ineffective.
“We might be forced to ask Russia to launch air strikes in Iraq soon … and that depends on their success in Syria,” Hakim al-Zamili told Reuters.
AIR SUPPORT ONLY SO FAR
NATO said on Tuesday it had reports of a substantial Russian military build-up in Syria, including ground troops and ships in the eastern Mediterranean.
Abdulrahman said Russia appeared to have stuck to air support on Wednesday. The assault followed a report by Reuters last week that allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, including Iranians, were preparing to recapture territory lost by the government to rebels in rapid advances this year.
“There is no information yet of any (government) advances on the ground, but the air strikes 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 in western Syria.
The Observatory said Russia’s strikes targeted the towns of Kafr Zita, Kafr Nabudah, al-Sayyad and the village of al-Latamneh in Hama province and the towns of Khan Shaykhun and Alhbit in Idlib. Most of Idlib province is held by an alliance of al Qaeda’s Syria wing Nusra Front and other Islamist groups.
Hezbollah-run al-Manar television said in a newsflash that “an operation by the Syrian army started in a number of villages and towns in the northern countryside of Hama province”.
A video posted by the media office of an opposition group in Hama province on YouTube purported to show heavy rocket strikes on Wednesday hitting an areas in the northern Hama countryside.
Reuters could not immediately independently corroborate the footage, which showed several large clouds of grey smoke rising over an area with buildings and trees in the morning light.
(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam in BEIRUT, Alexander Winning in MOSCOW, Phil Stewart and Crispian Balmer in ROME and Michael Georgy in BAGHDAD; writing by Philippa Fletcher,; editing by Peter Millership and Giles Elgood)
Photo: A man inspects a site hit by what activists said were airstrikes carried out by the Russian air force in the town of Babila, in the southern countryside of Idlib, Syria, October 7, 2015. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi