Russian warships have fired more than 20 missiles at militants in Syria, a Russian official said Wednesday, marking an escalation in Moscow’s eight-day-old air campaign that the U.S. says is attempting to prop up Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government.
The naval strikes come amid reports of Russian jets providing cover for Syrian troops advancing against rebel positions.
Four Russian warships based in the Caspian Sea fired at least 26 missiles at positions of the Islamic State militant group in Syria, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in Moscow. The missiles flew almost 1,000 miles before striking their targets, he said.
Their trajectory probably would have taken the missiles over the airspace of Iran and Iraq, two nations whose leaders have been supportive of the Russian aerial onslaught in Syria.
The areas hit were not immediately specified.
The missiles were identified by Russian news media as the new Kalibr-NK, a precision-guided weapon that, like U.S.-made Tomahawks, allows ships to safely deliver strikes from a long distance off enemy shores.
Moscow began the controversial air campaign on Sept. 30 in conjunction with the Syrian military, targeting positions of what Russia calls terrorists, including Islamic State, the Al Qaeda breakaway faction that the U.S.-led coalition has been bombing for more than a year.
The Russian intervention has increased tension with the United States, which is backing some of the rebels fighting to oust Assad.
Since the inception of its campaign, Russia has launched scores of airstrikes, concentrating on securing government-held strongholds in western, northern and central Syria.
The pattern of strikes suggests an effort to secure approaches to the major cities of Damascus, Homs and Hama, and to shore up the pro-government bastion of western Latakia province, along the Mediterranean coast. The Russians have been using a refurbished air base in Latakia for their air operations. The Kremlin also has a naval base in the Syrian coastal city of Tartus.
Syrian state news media reported Wednesday that Russian aircraft, in cooperation with Syrian warplanes, hit targets around the northern city of Aleppo. The city has been divided between government and opposition control for more than three years.
Reports have been circulating of a new Syrian military ground push aided by Russian airstrikes.
Al Mayadeen, a Lebanese news channel, reported Wednesday that Syrian forces had launched a ground offensive in northern Hama province under the cover of Russian and Syria air power.
Opposition accounts say Syrian pro-government forces are advancing in both Hama and northwest Idlib provinces. Russian airstrikes in the last week have pounded anti-government positions in both provinces, the Russians say.
U.S. officials have charged that the Russians are hitting “moderate” rebels, apparently including some backed by a covert program run by the Central Intelligence Agency. Moscow says it has targeted only “terrorists,” including the forces of Islamic State and Al Qaeda-linked factions.
The Russians have publicly stated a willingness to work with the U.S.-led coalition to target Islamic State but have been rejected.
In Russia, President Vladimir Putin praised his naval and air forces for their campaign against Islamic State and other militant groups, claiming the Russians have struck 112 targets since launching attacks.
In a meeting with Shoigu in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Putin also took a swipe at the accuracy of U.S. air power, alluding to the weekend bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in the northern Afghanistan city of Kunduz.
“The fact that we have launched precision-guided weapons from the Caspian at a range of around 1,500 kilometers [about 940 miles] and hit all the targets indicates the good status of the defense industry and the good skills of the personnel,” Putin observed.
He also offered to send Russian warplanes to hit Islamic State positions located by U.S. and other foreign partners, if they feel there are extremist targets being overlooked.
“If they say they are abreast of the situation better than we are, because they have operated in Syria for over six months — illegally, by the way, as I have told them recently — let them provide us with targets they have found and we will destroy them,” Putin said in the discussion with Shoigu, according to the Tass news agency and a Kremlin transcript.
Putin has cast his military’s intervention in Syria as needed to clean up after a relatively fruitless campaign against the Islamist militants by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other coalition forces. He has also justified the clear effort to bolster Assad’s beleaguered forces as preempting another disastrous U.S.-led “regime change” in the Middle East.
Russia is a crucial ally of Assad, whose government has been fighting for more than four years against an array of armed opponents, some backed by the United States and its allies, notably Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Putin has called Assad a bulwark against terrorism. Assad has welcomed the Russian intervention.
The Obama administration calls Assad a “magnet” for terrorists and says the Syrian leader must step down before any political settlement is possible in the conflict.
The war in Syria has cost more than 200,000 lives and left much of the country in ruins. All diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict to date have failed.
Times staff writers W.J. Hennigan in Brussels and Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles and special correspondent Nabih Bulos in Beirut contributed to this report.