BEIRUT — Russia has dramatically escalated its air war in Syria, unleashing heavy bombardments and cruise missile strikes from the Caspian Sea as cover for a major Syrian army ground offensive.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow had begun synchronising its strikes with the army's ground movements against rebels, as the Kremlin voiced willingness to make contact with fighters.
Putin, who turned 63 on Wednesday, said Russian warships had fired cruise missiles on Islamic State group positions in Syria for the first time.
A video map released by Russia's defence ministry showed the missiles launched from warships in the southern Caspian Sea and flying close to 1,500 kilometres through Iranian and Iraqi airspace before hitting targets in Syria.
A Syrian military source said government troops had begun a broad ground operation near the village of Latmeen in Hama province, aided by Russian air cover.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported at least 40 Russian air strikes in Hama and neighbouring Idlib province, which is controlled by the powerful Army of Conquest alliance that includes Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front.
The alliance has sought to expand into Hama from Idlib and seize high ground to target the neighbouring regime stronghold of Latakia province.
The Britain-based Observatory said "many raids, believed to be from Russian warplanes, killed six people" including two children in Maraat al-Numan in Idlib.
A military source in Hama said that "the Syrian army in its latest operations is working on cutting off the southern parts of Idlib province from the northern parts of Hama province."
He added that the operations were also intended to begin securing the major highway between Aleppo and Damascus.
Putin said Russian strikes would "be synchronised with the actions of the Syrian army on the ground" to support the regime's offensive operations. — AFP