Russia launches major offensive against rebels in Syria, using aircraft carrier for first time

Russian fleet launches warplane and cruise missile attacks against targets in Syria, ending lull in fighting

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 November, 2016, 12:03pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 November, 2016, 10:04pm

Russia launched a broad new offensive Tuesday against rebels seeking to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, an onslaught that included Moscow’s first use of fighter jets launched from an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean.

At the same time, a three-week lull in fighting in the northern city of Aleppo was shattered as Syrian aircraft bombarded neighbourhoods in the city’s rebel-held east. Cruise missiles were also launched from Russian warships. Opposition activists reported that at least five people were killed and scores more wounded.

The expanded Russian military push to prop up its ally Assad came a day after President-elect Donald Trump spoke by telephone with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a conversation that the Kremlin said centred on their common resolve to fight “international terrorism and extremism.”

Trump said during his campaign that he would welcome Russian cooperation in fighting the Sunni Muslim militants of Islamic State.

The Obama administration for months has denounced the punishing bombardment of opposition-held parts of Aleppo, in which Russia has played a key role, although Russia’s defence minister said its military did not take part in Tuesday’s strikes on the city.

Russia has said it is targeting only hard-line jihadist groups, including the former al-Qaeda affiliate the Front for the Conquest of Syria, but some other opposition fighters in the city are from U.S.-backed factions.

Syrian officials declared that the Aleppo airstrikes heralded a final battle to reassert government control over what once was Syria’s most populous city and its industrial centre.

Russia, in concert with the Syrian government, recently declared a truce in Aleppo, opening humanitarian corridors it said would allow safe passage for civilians in rebel-held areas blockaded by pro-government forces since July.

Tuesday’s casualty count in rebel-controlled areas came from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition monitoring group. Other anti-government activists uploaded images of helicopters dropping what they claimed were naval mines and barrel bombs on the eastern Aleppo neighbourhoods of Masaken Hanano, Sakhour and Firdos. The reports could not be independently verified.

“It’s more violent than before,” said Mahmoud Raslan, a pro-opposition photographer and activist, in an interview via a mobile messaging app on Tuesday. “The bombs have parachutes and … have more destructive power than the ones used before.”

The Aleppo attacks coincided with a “large-scale operation” by the Russian military targeting opposition-controlled areas of the central province of Homs and the northern province of Idlib, according to a statement by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. He said those strikes were aimed at militants affiliated with al-Qaida and Islamic State.

Ministry-provided video showed a Russian frigate off the Syrian coast launching missiles aimed at rebel positions. Shoigu said the offensive marked the first time the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov had taken part in combat operations.

The escalation of military operations followed weeks of preparation by the Syrian government and Russia. In recent weeks, Moscow dispatched additional naval units and bolstered its air force and defenses in the coastal airbase of Hemeimeem.

Meanwhile, pro-government forces have reinforced their positions around eastern Aleppo, which aid groups estimate has 200,000 to 300,000 remaining residents. Last week, the Syrian army sent messages and leaflets to the rebels exhorting them to surrender or face what it said were “highly trained” units attacking from nine different fronts.

On a recent visit to Aleppo, reporters glimpsed Syrian troops accompanied by elite Russian Spetsnaz units conducting reconnaissance missions in the ancient souk of the old city of Aleppo. The area, which was devastated in fighting between the government and the rebels in 2013, has become part of the front line that divides Aleppo into spheres of government and opposition control.

Humanitarian groups and witnesses describe harsh conditions in eastern Aleppo, with heavy civilian casualties from months of bombardment, coupled with scant access to medical care and basic supplies. Some aid groups said food parcels they distributed would run out this week.