The Syrian army, supported by Russian air power and Iranian-led militias, pressed ahead for a second day Thursday with an offensive intended to retake portions of Hama and Latakia province from rebels, some of whom are supported by the United States.
But the offensive again met tough resistance from rebels even as U.S. officials asserted that Russia’s cruise missile strike against rebel positions also was less successful than Moscow had suggested on Wednesday. The officials said four of the 26 missiles fired had crash landed in Iran and likely caused civilian casualties.
Activists opposed to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad said rebel groups on Thursday downed as many as five helicopters and destroyed a large number of tanks and armored vehicles with TOW missiles that were provided under a clandestine CIA program.
Both Russian and Iranians officials denied that four missiles launched from ships in the Caspian Sea had veered off course. The Iranian Defense Ministry said the reports were part of the West’s “psychological warfare” against the Russian involvement in Syria.
Dmitry Loskutov, an aide to Russia’s deputy prime minister, noted in a tweet that the allegations were anonymous and called CNN, which first carried the claim, “Cock-and-bull News Network.” “Unprofessional,” he said.
“No matter how unpleasant and unexpected for our colleagues in the Pentagon and Langley was yesterday’s high-precision strike on Islamic State infrastructure in Syria, the fact remains that all missiles launched from our ships have found their targets,” Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency quoted the Russian Defense Ministry’s spokesman, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, as saying.
Still, a U.S. official, who spoke anonymously in order to discuss intelligence matters, stuck to the version that some of the cruise missiles had strayed.
“We believe that four of those missiles that were fired yesterday likely crashed in Iran,” the official told McClatchy.
The supposed failure of the four missiles and the reports of fierce resistance to the Syrian army’s offensive, despite Russian air support, was a reminder that Syria’s civil war was not likely to be resolved quickly simply because Russia has intervened.
It’s clear the infamous ‘little green men’ will eventually play a role in the Syrian conflict.
European intelligence official
The head of the Syrian military, Gen. Ali Abdullah Ayyoub, told that country’s state-run SANA news agency that the offensive was expected to last weeks or even months.
Ayyoub said that the offensive targeted rebel enclaves in Hama, Homs, Latakia and Idlib provinces, although reports from Syrian opposition activists said that most of Thursday’s fighting took place in Hama and Latakia.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-Assad monitoring group, said that Thursday’s advance targeted positions in northern Hama held by the Army of Conquest, or Jaysh al Fatah in Arabic, a rebel grouping dominated by the Nusra Front, al Qaida’s branch in Syria. But the group also includes more moderate rebel units backed by the United States.
Russia’s Ministry of Defense announced that its aircraft had flown 22 sorties over Syria during the night, hitting what it called “27 terrorist facilities.” It said the strikes were conducted by SU-34, SU-24M and SU-25 aircraft. Eight of those strikes were in Homs province in the country’s west, the ministry said. Eleven targeted training camps in Hama and Raqqa, where the Islamic State maintains its de facto capital.
In contrast, the U.S. Central Command announced just one American airstrike in the same period. That targeted an Islamic State oil production facility near al Hawl in Hasaka province in Syria’s northeast, the Central Command said.
Despite claims by some opposition activists, there was no confirmation that Russian ground forces have participated in the fighting. But many analysts anticipated that Russia eventually will allow so-called “volunteers” to deploy on behalf of the Syrian government. Such volunteers also played a role in the Russian seizure of Crimea and efforts to consolidate control over eastern Ukraine.
The flow of pro-Russia ‘volunteers’ is a classic feature of Russian warfare.
Michael Cecire, an analyst at the Foreign Policy Research Institute
“It’s clear the infamous ‘little green men’ will eventually play a role in the Syrian conflict,” said one European intelligence official, who lacks the authority to discuss intelligence matters on the record with journalists. “We have already seen a scaling down of troops and support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine as well as indications that Russian special operations troops are active in Syria. Russian officials are clearly preparing the way for ‘volunteers’ to join the fighting in Syria, and these are almost always led by Russian special operations troops who have been ‘volun-told’ to lead them.”
The phrase “little green men” was used to describe the anonymous masked commandos who became widespread in the 2014 takeover of Crimea.
On Monday, a top Russian military lawmaker, Adm. Vladimir Komoyedov, head of the armed forces committee in the Russian Parliament, said that the arrival of Russian volunteers in Syria “cannot be stopped.” His statement, released by the Kremlin-controlled state media, came just days after the pro-Moscow Chechen ruler, Ramzan Kadyrov, volunteered his security forces and militias to confront radicals and rebels in Syria on behalf of both Assad and Moscow.
“The flow of pro-Russia ‘volunteers’ is a classic feature of Russian warfare,” said Michael Cecire, an analyst of Russia and the Caucuses for the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. “Moscow taps such forces because they are a convenient guise for the projection of Russian power while retaining the ability to skirt deniability issues.”
We believe that four of those missiles that were fired yesterday likely crashed in Iran.
Cecire added that in 2008, large numbers of Chechens, Ossetians and Central Asian militias were used in the Russian invasion of Georgia, while Chechens loyal to Kadyrov joined Cossacks and other Russian ultra-nationalist groups in buttressing Ukrainian separatists. In both cases, the militias were directed by regular Russian military forces.
“While volunteer flows are coordinated from Moscow, their exact compositions can vary,” Cecire said. “Russian regular and special forces will almost certainly flow with volunteer formations. But volunteer formations may also be composed of militia forces, such as Kadyrov’s Kadyrovtsy, who have also deployed to Georgia and Ukraine in support of regular Russian forces. Mercenaries, Cossacks and pro-Russia separatists – such as from Abkhazia, South Ossetia and even Ukraine – will also pop up in these groups.”
James Rosen and Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this story from Washington.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero