Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia's warplanes, is reported to have launched a major ground offensive against rebels. Moscow has also fired cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea at "Islamic State" targets.
Assad's troops closed in on rebel-held towns and villages north to the central city of Hama, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights said in a statement. "It is the most intense fighting in months," Observatory chief Rami Abdurrahman told reporters.
The Syrian military's offensive seemed to be targeting Hama's military airport as well as defending the country's main north-south highway, which was currently under government control, Abdurrahman added. One of the Observatory's activists, Ahmad al-Ahmad, who was currently in Idlib, a neighboring province also under attack, said government troops were "heavily" shelling rebel areas.
An adviser to the Free Syrian Army rebel alliance said the attacks could be the beginning of Assad's largest ground offensive.
"Nobody tests the ground using such intensity of fire and tanks," military adviser Osama Abu Zeid told the DPA news agency. "We believe the actual ground attack has started accompanied by precise strikes from Russian planes since the early hours in the morning."
Iranian forces were "commanding the ground attack," he claimed.
Meanwhile, the Russian Navy had also begun participating in the offensive. Four warships in the Caspian Sea fired 26 missiles and hit 11 targets in Syria, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said. The missiles passed over Iran and Iraq and their targets, including "Islamic State" (IS) hideouts, were destroyed without any damage to civilians, Russian news channel RT reported.
Moscow and US could work together
Russia, which began its airstrikes over rebel-held territory last week, said it could implement US proposals to coordinate strikes in the country against the self-styled "Islamic State."
"The Russian Defense Ministry has answered the demands of the Pentagon and is examining in depth American proposals on coordinating operations carried out… against the terrorist group Islamic State on Syrian territory," Russian news agencies quoted Moscow's defense spokesman Igor Konashenkov as saying.
"On the whole, these proposals could be put in place," he added.
US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, however, said the United States was not prepared to coordinate with Russia and called Moscow's plan "tragically flawed." Carter added that Washington was prepared for basic, technical military-to-military talks with Moscow.
Russian officials have also complained that NATO did not listen to its explanation regarding two purported violations of Turkish airspace by Russian fighter jets this week. Moscow said the incursions lasted "a few seconds" and were accidental, caused by bad weather. Russia's NATO envoy, Alexander Grushko, said the handling of the incident showed NATO's "true intentions," adding that it was "perverting and distorting the purpose of the Russian Air Force's operation in Syria."
Russia is a close ally of Syria's regime, headed by Assad, who is also backed by Iran and the Shiite Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.
mg/sms (AP, Reuters, dpa)