USA Today is reporting as follows…Four Russian missiles miss Syrian targets, hit Iran?
President Obama has said that Russian air strikes in Syria won’t draw the U.S. into a “proxy war,” but Russia’s involvement still poses major implications for the U.S. military.
Four Russian cruise missiles launched from the Caspian Sea missed their Syrian targets Thursday and landed in Iran, FOX News and CNN reported, citing unnamed U.S. officials.
CNN reported that U.S. military and intelligence assets monitoring the cruise missiles concluded they landed in Iran. Iran’s FARS news agency, however, said neither Russian nor Iranian authorities had confirmed the information, CNN reported.
It’s unclear whether the errant missiles caused damage or casualties on the ground, the Associated Press reported.
Meanwhile in Brussels, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter warned Thursday that Russia will soon experience consequences as it ramps up its military campaign in Syria. “In the coming days, the Russians will begin to suffer from casualties,” he said, according to AFP.
The developments came as Syrian troops — bolstered by Russian airstrikes and sea-based cruise missiles — launched a large-scale military operation in central and northwestern parts of the country “to liberate the area” from terrorist groups, the nation’s top general said Thursday.
Gen. Ali Ayoub, the Syrian chief of staff, did not specify the target areas for the new offensive but said Syria had created new fighting units to wage the campaign, the state-owned Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported.
The heavy fighting appeared to be concentrated in the rural areas of Idlib, Hama and Latakia provinces, where the Army of Conquest, a coalition of rebel groups that includes the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, operates, the Associated Press reported. The Western-backed Free Syrian Army also has a presence in the area. The Islamic State has a limited presence in western Hama.
While much of the Syrian agency’s report centered on claims of attacks on Islamic State militants and al-Qaeda affiliated groups, the Syrian regime also refers to rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad as “terrorists.”
Ayoub, in a rare televised address, said Russian strikes against the Islamic State and “other terrorist organizations” had reduced their combat capabilities and that Syrian armed forces “have taken the reins of military operations and formed well-armed and equipped human forces,” SANA reported.
In its latest show of force, the Russian defense ministry said cruise missiles fired from its ships in the Caspian Sea hit weapons factories, arms dumps, command centers and training camps supporting Islamic State forces, Reuters reported.
Russian officials say the 26 missiles hit the provinces of Raqqa and Aleppo in the north and Idlib province in the northwest, according to the AP. The Islamic State group has strongholds in Raqqa and Aleppo, while the Nusra Front has a strong presence in Idlib. Activists in Raqqa said at least one of the cruise missiles landed in an open area in the nearby town of Tabqa, causing a huge explosion.
The U.S. has charged that the Russians have focused their military campaign against anti-Assad rebels, not the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
“Greater than 90% of the strikes that we’ve seen them take to date have not been against ISIL or al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday.
“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,” he said.
The Syrian media offered extensive reports on Russia’s air campaign, saying that hundreds of Islamic State militants have died in the attacks, particularly in the northern province of Aleppo.
In the Latakia province of western Syria, where rebels fighting the Assad regime have maintained a lengthy offensive, a SANA reporter said 20 militants were killed when a car being rigged with explosives detonated. The report said a Saudi officer and explosives expert was among the dead. Saudi Arabia has backed the rebel fight against Assad and the Islamic State.
Russia’s intervention has strained ties with NATO, particularly Turkey, which shares a long border with Syria and has been a leading backer of the Syrian rebels.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that Moscow’s military action in Syria is endangering trade ties with his country. Speaking to journalists while en route from Brussels to Tokyo, Erdogan warned that Ankara could look elsewhere for gas supplies and cancel the construction of its first nuclear power plant, which is being built by Russia. Russia supplies 60% of Turkey’s gas needs.
“Losing Turkey would be a serious loss for Russia,” Erdogan said, in comments published Thursday in the Hurriyet newspaper.
Over the weekend, Turkey reported back-to-back violations of its airspace by Russian warplanes. Russia called its penetration of Turkish airspace a minor incident that was unintentional.
Meanwhile, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, arrived for a meeting in Brussels of the alliance’s defense minister, which is likely to focus on Syria and Russia’s involvement there.
“NATO has already responded by increasing our capacity, our ability, our preparedness to deploy forces including to the south, including in Turkey,” he said, adding that Russia’s air and cruise missile strikes were “reasons for concern.”
Syria’s conflict, which began as an uprising against Assad in March 2011 but descended into a full-blown civil war after a fierce government crackdown, has so far killed 250,000 people, according to United Nations figures.
Tehran apparently lobbied hard for Moscow to play a larger role in conflicts in Syria and Iraq, including by conducting airstrikes, according to a media report.
The head of Iran’s elite special forces unit Quds Force, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, traveled to Russia in August to forcefully argue the case for military intervention in the region by President Vladimir Putin, the AP reported Thursday, citing anonymous Iraqi government officials.
The AP said Soleimani met with Putin and they reviewed maps, surveillance photos and shared intelligence. Soleimani also met with senior Russian military officials to discuss plans for a joint intelligence-sharing center in Baghdad between Iraq, Syria, Iran and Russia. That center is now operational.