Syrian government forces backed by Russian air power launched a major ground offensive Thursday targeting rebel positions in northern Syria, according to government and opposition accounts.
Syrian Gen. Ali Abdullah Ayoub announced the "large-scale assault" in a nationally televised address from what was said to be the joint Russian-Syrian operations room in Hmeymim air base in Syria's coastal Latakia province.
"Today the Syrian Arab Army began a wide-scale offensive with the aim of destroying the gathering points of terror and liberating the towns and areas that have suffered," declared Ayoub, who added that the push targeted Islamic State, known as Daesh in Arabic, and other "terrorist" formations.
Joint operations of Syrian and Russian air forces pounded opposition positions in northern Aleppo and Latakia provinces, Syrian state media said, reporting that "precise" strikes had killed "hundreds of terrorists" and destroyed armored vehicles and other opposition equipment.
The Russian aid has thrust the Syrian army into an offensive position in northern Syria and provided a boost to the government of President Bashar Assad. Earlier this year, government troops suffered territorial setbacks in the north to opposition forces led by the Army of Conquest, an Al Qaeda-linked rebel alliance.
The ground assault, the general said, was preceded by "Russian strikes that lowered the fighting ability of Daesh and other terrorist organizations" struggling to topple Assad's government.
Although Syrian commanders did not specify targets of the ground assault, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition group, reported heavy clashes in the strategic Ghab Plains area, the fertile spit of land that lies at the foot of Assad's home province of Latakia
Securing the coastal province has emerged as a major objective of the Russian air offensive that began on Sept. 30 in support of government forces. Recent rebel gains had encroached on Latakia, which also houses the heavily defended air base being used by Russian warplanes.
Abdullah Al-Muhaisni, a well-known cleric who is part of the Al Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front, issued an urgent call Thursday for all opposition factions to mount a defense before "the vicious assault" by the "Russians and the Nusayris."
"Nusayri" is the derogatory term used by Sunni Islamist groups to refer to the minority Alawite sect, whose adherents include Assad. Al Qaeda-style extremist factions fighting in Syria have frequently depicted the battle as a holy war pitting Syria's Sunni Muslim majority against the sect.
The Ghab Plains offensive is the second major ground operation launched by the Syrian army since Russia began conducting airstrikes in Syria last week.
On Wednesday, Syrian army units bolstered by helicopter gunships attempted to advance into areas of northern Hama province long occupied by rebel forces.
But opposition representatives said that assault stalled. Rebels said they had destroyed at least 18 tanks, some apparently hit with U.S.-supplied TOW antitank missiles.
"We can say the attack on Hama yesterday was a failure," Rami Abdul Rahman, the pseudonym used by the head of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said in a telephone interview.
Opposing the government forces, the observatory chief said, were an array of both Al Qaeda-linked factions such as the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham, and groups operating under the banner of the so-called Free Syrian Army, a loose coalition of rebels, some backed by U.S. aid.
Leith Fadel, head of the pro-government news outlet Al-Masdar News, confirmed that government forces had been forced to retreat Wednesday in Hama province.
Opposition activists, meanwhile, uploaded a video montage depicting rebels deploying TOW missiles against government armor. Others shared pictures showing the blackened husks of burnt-out tanks under the hashtag #Tank_Massacre.
"We ask all scrap metal buyers to head to Hama [province] to buy the destroyed tanks and thank you," said a Twitter message from an opposition activist who goes by the nickname Abu Assad al-Homsi.
Bulos is a special correspondent.