Russian warships in the Caspian Sea have launched rockets at the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria which hit their targets, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said in a joint television appearance.
Russian efforts “will be synchronised with the actions of the Syrian army on the ground and the actions of our air force will effectively support the offensive operation of the Syrian army,” Putin said in the meeting with Shoigu on Wednesday.
“In addition to the air force, four warships of the Caspian flotilla have been involved,” Shoigu said, adding that the warships had carried out 26 cruise missile strikes against 11 targets.
“The intensity of the strikes is increasing.”
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The missiles flew nearly 1,500km over Iran and Iraq and struck Raqqa and Aleppo provinces in the north and Idlib province in the northwest, Russian officials said. ISIL has strongholds in Raqqa and Aleppo, while the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front has a strong presence in Idlib.
‘Not targeting ISIL’
Western countries, Arab states and Turkey, who are waging their own bombing campaign against ISIL but want Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – an ally of Russia – to leave power, say Moscow is using ISIL as a pretext to target Assad’s other foes.
Almost none of Russia’s strikes have been aimed at ISIL or fighters tied to al-Qaeda, with most targeting the Syrian opposition, the US State Department said on Wednesday.
“Greater than 90 percent of the strikes that we’ve seen them take to date have not been against ISIL or al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby.
“They’ve been largely against opposition groups that want a better future for Syria and don’t want to see the Assad regime stay in power.”
Putin, however, stressed the need for cooperation with the US-led coalition fighting ISIL, saying that without cooperation from the US, Turkey and Saudi Arabia the intervention was unlikely to work.
Major ground operation
Also on Wednesday the Syrian army and pro-regime forces launched a major ground operation in Hama province backed by air support from Russian warplanes, a military source told AFP news agency.
“The Syrian army and allied forces began a ground operation in the northern parts of Hama province [central Syria]… with fire cover from the Russian air force,” the source said.
Russian forces carried out the air strikes on Wednesday morning, in addition to targeting anti-government armed groups with surface-to-surface missiles, said the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
In Aleppo, Russian strikes targeted the towns of al-Bab and Deir Hafer, about 20km east of a military airport currently besieged by ISIL fighters.
The Syrian Observatory also reported that at least six people were killed, including one child, in suspected Russian air strikes in Idlib.
Russian forces have struck 112 targets in war-torn Syria since September 30, Shoigu said.
Coordination with US
Putin said it was too early to talk about the results of Russia’s operations in Syria and ordered Shoigu to continue cooperation with the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq on Syria.
Putin also said that French President France Hollande had voiced the idea of uniting Assad’s forces with the so-called Free Syrian Army to fight ISIL.
But a source close to Hollande denied he had said this.
“The president spoke of the necessary presence of the Syrian opposition around the negotiating table.” a source close to Hollande said. “The rest is not a French idea.”
Shoigu said that on Tuesday Russia had summoned foreign military attaches in Moscow and suggested they supply Russia with any intelligence on ISIL positions.
“Today we are expecting a reply from our colleagues and we hope they will tell us about those targets which they have,” he said.
Shoigu also said Russia was ready to agree a document with the US to coordinate actions in Syria.