Assad forces launch major ground offensive

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Syria’s chief-of-staff has declared a wide-ranging ground offensive by government forces, a day after Russian air strikes and cruise missiles launched from the Caspian Sea backed Damascus’s multi-pronged advance into two Syrian provinces.

In a rare televised speech, General Ali Ayoub said the Russian strikes have facilitated an expanded military operation to eliminate “terrorists” – a term the Syrian government uses to refer to all armed opposition to President Bashar Assad.

The Syrian ground push got a boost after Russian warships launched the cruise missiles into Syria on Wednesday, bringing a major new military might into the war on the heels of Russian air strikes that began last week.

The cruise missiles hit the provinces of Raqqa and Aleppo in the north and also Idlib province in the north west, Russian officials said. Islamic State has strongholds in Raqqa and Aleppo, while Syria’s al-Qaida branch, the Nusra Front, has a strong presence in Idlib.

“After the Russian air strikes, which reduced the fighting ability of Daesh and other terrorist groups, the Arab Syrian armed forces kept the military initiative and formed armed ground troops, the most important of which is the fourth legion-raid,” Gen Ayoub said, using the Arabic acronym
for IS.

He added: “Today, the Syrian Arab armed forces began a wide-ranging attack with the aim of eliminating the terrorists groups and liberating the areas and towns that suffered from their scourge and crimes.”

Syrian activists said government troops pushed from areas they control in the rural part of Latakia, into rebel-held areas in the province that is the heartland of Assad’s family and Alawite minority group. Latakia is the third province to see ground operations since Wednesday.