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Syria Launches Major Offensive As NATO Ponders Russia Strikes Response

Russian warplanes began airstrikes in Syria in support of a push by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in the country's civil war last week.

Last updated on October 1, 2015, at 6:34 a.m. ET

Posted on October 1, 2015, at 6:34 a.m. ET

Damaged buildings in the town of Darat Azzah, west of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, following reported bombings by government forces, Oct. 7.
Fadi Al-halabi / AFP / Getty Images

Damaged buildings in the town of Darat Azzah, west of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, following reported bombings by government forces, Oct. 7.

What We Know So Far:

  • Russia said that four of its warships on the Caspian Sea launched 26 cruise missiles against ISIS targets in Syria.
  • Pro-government forces, in cooperation with Russia's airstrikes, have launched a ground offensive against insurgents in central parts of the region. *A humans rights organization said Russian airstrikes had damaged three medical facilities in two days.
  • A U.S.-led coalition aircraft bombing ISIS militants had to be rerouted to avoid Russians.
  • The upper house of the Russian parliament granted President Vladimir Putin permission to use the country's military in Syria.
  • Moscow began airstrikes to assist an offensive by the regime of Bashar al-Assad — a longtime ally.
  • Despite Moscow insisting they were bombing ISIS positions, multiple reports have emerged suggesting that they are attacking Western-backed rebel groups.
  • Russia and the U.S. are set for talks on how to avoid clashing in Syrian airspace.
  • A Kremlin spokesperson said Thursday said Russia's operation in Syria is targeting a "list" of groups, and not just ISIS.
  • The U.S.-led coalition carrying out their own aerial campaign in Syria and Iraq said Russia's involvement could "fuel extremism" Friday.
  • Turkey's Foreign Ministry said in a statement Monday that its jets had intercepted a Russian warplane in its airspace Saturday morning.
  • NATO defense ministers convened Thursday to discuss Russia's intervention in the country.
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Defense ministers of NATO member states are meeting in Brussels Thursday to discuss their response to Russia's growing role in the Syria conflict, a move that comes as the Syrian military announced the start of a large-scale ground offensive.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg addresses a press conference at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, on Oct. 6.
Thierry Charlier / AFP / Getty Images

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg addresses a press conference at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, on Oct. 6.

Ahead of the meeting, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg described Russia's activities in Syria as a "troubling escalation" and added that "NATO is ready and able to defend all allies, including Turkey, against any threats."

The meeting comes the same day the Syrian military chief of staff said that the country's army was launching a major ground offensive, supported by Russian airstrikes.

Lt. Gen. Ali Abdullah Ayoub said his troops were launching a "big attack" to "liberate areas and towns which have suffered from terrorism," Sky News reported.

On Thursday morning, the Russian Ministry of Defense released more video of its Caspian Sea warships launching cruise missiles at targets in Syria. The tweet said the missiles "successfully struck all specified ISIS targets ... with fixed precision."

#СИРИЯ Крылатые ракеты #КалибрНК успешно поразили все заданные цели ИГИЛ с заданной точностью http://t.co/aSTdrTWNgW

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The Pentagon said a U.S.-led coalition aircraft bombing ISIS had to be rerouted to avoid Russians.

BREAKING: U.S.-led coalition aircraft bombing Islamic State militants in Syria re-routed to avoid Russians: Pentagon

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A humans rights organization says that Russian airstrikes have struck three medical facilities in Syria in two days.

A Russian airstrike hits buildings in the town of Latamna in the area of Hama in Eastern Syria, Wednesday, Oct. 7.
Syrian Revolutionary Command Council in Hama via AP Video

A Russian airstrike hits buildings in the town of Latamna in the area of Hama in Eastern Syria, Wednesday, Oct. 7.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) said Wednesday that Russian airstrikes have damaged three medical facilities in Syria in two days and injured several medical staff members. The organization said that multiple members of its staff were injured when a Russian warplane launched a strike on a field hospital in Latamneh in northern Hama on Oct 2.

PHR said that a hospital near the Turkish border — the only one in the region with an obstetrics/gynecology unit — had to be evacuated after a Russian airstrike and could only provide some emergency services. The three medical facilities were located more than 30 miles away from the nearest ISIS-controlled territory, according to PHR.

"Bashar al-Assad's forces have been relentlessly attacking Syria's health care system for the past four years and the Russian government is now following in their footsteps," Widney Brown, PHR's director of programs, said in a statement. "These attacks are inexcusable. With these actions, Russia is damaging hospitals, putting patients and medical staff at risk, and depriving civilians of life-saving access to health care."

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The New York Times on Tuesday wrote on how ISIS's use of chemical weapons has affected civilians who have refused to abandon their homes in war-torn areas.

While ISIS has reportedly used chemical weapons against the Kurdish militia in Iraq and Syrian rebels, the extremist group's attack on the Syrian neighborhood of Marea on Aug. 21, affected local residents.

The Times wrote about a family in Marea, whose house was struck by an artillery shell believed to contain a chemical agent. The family's newborn baby girl died of swellings and burns from the sulfur-mustard agent they were exposed to, while her parents and their other 3-year-old daughter survived with extensive burns and blisters.

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Pro-government Syrian troops have reportedly launched a ground offensive against insurgents in coordination with Russian airstrikes that began last week, The New York Times reported.

A bomb explosion is seen in Syria from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015.
Russian Defense Ministry Press Service / AP Photo

A bomb explosion is seen in Syria from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015.

A Syrian official told the Associated Press that the ground offensive was launched in the central provinces of Hama and Idlib. ISIS groups are not present in these areas, the AP reported.

The ground offensive includes the Syrian Army, Hezbollah ground forces and Russian airstrikes battling against insurgents, a Syrian official told the Times.

Without confirming the ground offensive, a Russian official said that "coordination is taking place with the Syrian Army."

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Four Russian navy warships launched 26 cruise missiles at ISIS targets in Syria, Russian authorities said Wednesday.

A Russian navy ship launches a cruise missile in the Caspian Sea.
Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP

A Russian navy ship launches a cruise missile in the Caspian Sea.

In a televised meeting with Putin, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that 26 missile strikes were carried out from four warships on the Caspian Sea, the Associated Press reported.

Shoigu said that the strike, carried out nearly 1,000 miles away, destroyed all 11 targets in Syria. He said that there were no civilian casualties.

"That we fired from the territory of the Caspian Sea, at a range greater than 1,500 kilometers, and hit targets precisely, this shows high qualifications," Putin said, praising the crew members, The New York Times reported.

Russia's defense ministry released footage of its warships launching the cruise missiles against 11 targets nearly 1,000 miles away in Syria.

View this video on YouTube

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Russian warplanes have carried out airstrikes on targets in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra overnight Monday, among other sites, the Syrian state news agency SANA reported Tuesday.

Ruins in Palmyra, Mar. 2014.
Joseph Eid / AFP / Getty Images

Ruins in Palmyra, Mar. 2014.

The SANA report reads:

A military source said headquarters for ISIS leaders were destroyed in Deir Hafer and al-Bab in Aleppo province. Airstrikes also targeted ISIS hideouts in Palmyra city in Homs, destroying 20 armored vehicles, 3 ammunition depots and 3 rocket launching pads, according to the source. Meanwhile, more terrorists are being killed and many of their weapons and equipment are being destroyed as the army units continued to target their positions in various areas.

On Monday, it was reported that ISIS militants had destroyed the famous Arch of Triumph in Palmyra, one of the most famous monuments in the 2,000-year-old UNESCO World Heritage site.

ISIS have been gradually destroying priceless artifacts and structures in Palmyra, as part of their plan to rid Syria of pre-Islamic symbols, which it sees as idolatrous.

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Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO, again addressed Russia's violation of Turkish airspace Tuesday. He said that Russia jets made two incursions into Turkey over the weekend, adding "this doesn't look like an accident."

Speaking during a news conference in Brussels, Stoltenberg said:

This is a consequence of the increased Russian military presence in Syria, and a minimum requirement is Russia is able to deconflict with the the ongoing coalition fighting ISIL, and also respect the borders of Turkey — including the airspace of Turkey — which is also NATO airspace.

For us, this doesn't look like an accident, this is a serious violation of airspace, and there were actually two violations over the weekend.

That just adds to the fact this doesn't look like an accident. The violation lasted for a long time compared to previous violations of airspace in Europe.

It's unacceptable to violate the airspace of another country, and this is exactly what we were afraid of, that incidents and accidents may create dangerous situations. Therefore, it's important to make sure this doesn't happen again.

Russia's Foreign Ministry released a statement confirming the country's ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov, had been summoned twice to explain the alleged violations, TASS Agency reported. The ministry's press service said:

"We confirm that the Russian ambassador to Turkey was summoned to the Foreign Ministry on October 3 and then on October 5 over what it described as violations of the national airspace on October 3 and 4. At a meeting with Turkey's deputy foreign minister a protest was lodged with the Russian ambassador over the incident."

On Monday, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said that the incursion only happened for a few seconds, as the result of adverse weather conditions, according to TASS Agency.

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NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg released a statement Monday condemning Russia's apparent violation of Turkey's airspace during its aerial campaign in Syria.

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Stoltenberg said:

I just met with the Foreign Minister of Turkey Feridun Sinirlioğlu to discuss the recent military actions of the Russian Federation in and around Syria. Including the unacceptable violations of Turkish airspace by Russian combat aircraft.

I made clear that NATO remains strongly committed to Turkey's security. I will convene a meeting of the North Atlantic Council later today to discuss the situation.

Russia's actions are not contributing to the security and stability of the region.

I call on Russia to fully respect NATO airspace and to avoid escalating tensions with the Alliance. I urge Russia to take the necessary steps to align its efforts with those of the international community in the fight against ISIL.

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Turkey's Foreign Ministry said in a statement Monday that two of its fighter jets intercepted a Russian warplane that violated Turkish airspace early Saturday morning.

A fighter aircraft belonging to the Russian Federation violated Turkish airspace at 12:08 on 3 October 2015 south of the Yayladağı/Hatay region. The Russian aircraft exited Turkish airspace into Syria after it was intercepted by two F-16s from the Turkish Air Force, which were conducting patrols in the region. The Acting Undersecretary of the Ministry summoned the Ambassador of the Russian Federation in Ankara to the Ministry and strongly protested this violation, demanded that any such violation not be repeated and affirmed that, otherwise, the Russian Federation will be responsible for any undesired incident that may occur. The Foreign Minister called the Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov to reiterate the views stated above and express our reaction. The Foreign Minister also held telephone calls with his US, French, Italian and UK counterparts to evaluate the situation. The Foreign Minister will also consult with the NATO Secretary General and his German counterpart.

Last week, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said he was "disturbed" by the Russian intervention in Syria, and questioned the motives behind the operation.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Paris Friday to meet with French President Francois Hollande, whose country's air force is involved in U.S.-led operations in Syria.

Thierry Chesnot / Getty Images

The pair are meeting as part of a summit aimed at consolidating the fragile peace in Ukraine. However, this is likely to be overshadowed by the Russian intervention in Syria.

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Kremlin-backed RT has published footage of Russian jets taking off from the airbase they are launching their operation from in Latakia, Syria.

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Alexei Pushkov, the head of Russia's foreign affairs committee who earlier said the country's armed forces could be carrying out their aerial operation in Syria for up to four months, rolled back on his comments Friday afternoon, RIA Nostovi reported.

"My words were taken out of context, I would like to say that the US military operation continues in Syria for more than a year. As for the Russian military operation... it will be limited in time, will have a definite time frame," Pushkov said.

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The governments of France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Kingdom and United States — members of the U.S.-led coalition carrying out an aerial campaign against ISIS — released a statement condemning Russia's airstrikes in Syria Friday:

We express our deep concern with regard to the Russian military build-up in Syria and especially ‎the attacks by the Russian Air Force on Hama, Homs and Idlib since yesterday which led to civilian casualties and did not target Da'esh. ‎

These military actions constitute a further escalation and will only fuel more extremism and radicalization.

We call on the Russian Federation to immediately cease its attacks on the Syrian opposition and civilians and to focus its efforts on fighting ISIL.

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Russia's Ministry of Defense has posted new videos showing airstrikes carried out in Syria overnight Thursday.

Facebook: video.php

The ministry said Russian warplanes had carried out 18 sorties focusing on 12 targets.

Aleppo, Idlib, Hama, and Raqqa were the main areas targeted. Only Raqqa is considered to be a stronghold for ISIS.

The ministry tweeted a video of bombers engaging in what it says is an ISIS roadblock in Hama.

#SYRIA: #Su24 bombers engaged #ISIS roadblock near MAARRAT AL-NUUMAN: video shows terrorists shelters being hit https://t.co/aAYnpbJMv5

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The head of Russia's foreign affairs committee has said the country's involvement in Syria could intensify and last four months. In an interview with French radio station Europe 1 cited by ITV News, Alexei Pushkov said.

"There is always a risk of being bogged down but in Moscow, we are talking about an operation of three to four months."

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UN

Sergey Lavrov, Russia's Foreign Minister, said during a press briefing at the United Nations on Thursday "that we're not planning to expand our airstrikes to Iraq" despite earlier reports.

"We were not invited, we were not asked, as you know we are polite people," he said.

Lavrov also responded to U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter's statement, on Wednesday, that Russia's campaign of airstrikes in Syria ostensibly against ISIS was akin to throwing gasoline on a fire.

Lavrov said he "cannot share [Carter's] assessment. We know of many fires gasolined by Pentagon in the region and believe our position is absolutely in line with international law."

"We believe in collective action. we believe in the effort which is based on international law. on the agreements reached and never broken," he said.

Russia also said its first military-to-military contact with the U.S. regarding the strikes will happen "very, very soon."

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Iraq's Prime Minister reportedly said he welcomes Russian airstrikes against ISIS in his country.

#Iraq Pm #Abadi @FRANCE24: #Putin told me Russia fighting #ISIS in Syria and I trust him, I'm open to Russian airstrikes vs Daech in Iraq

Meanwhile, Turkey's foreign minister reportedly said he expressed "serious concern" over the Russian strikes in Syria.

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U.S. Senator John McCain — the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee — told CNN Thursday that he had received evidence Russian airstrikes had hit U.S.-trained rebels in Syria.

John McCain at Capitol Hill, Jul. 2015
Mark Wilson / Getty Images

John McCain at Capitol Hill, Jul. 2015

Speaking on CNN's "New Day," Sen. McCain said:

"Their initial strikes were against the individuals and the groups that have been funded and trained by our CIA, in a credible flaunting of any kind of cooperation or effort to conceal what Putin's priority is — and that is, of course, to prop up Bashar Assad. [I] can absolutely confirm to you that they were strikes against our Free Syrian Army, or groups that have been armed and trained by the CIA, because we have communications with people there."

On Wednesday, BuzzFeed News' Mike Giglio spoke to a Free Syria Army-affliated commander who confirmed they had been targeted by the Russian operation.

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Russia has deployed some 50 jets and warplanes in Syria and enacted eight sorties overnight, a Defense Ministry spokesman cited by Kremlin-backed RT said.

"The air group was deployed on very short notice," Igor Konashenkov said. "It was possible because we had most of the materiel and ammunition ready at our depot in Tartus. We only had to move our aircraft and deliver some extra equipment."

The total number of sorties Russia said it enacted in the first 24 hours of its operation in Syria stands at 12.

The ministry also tweeted details of the types of aircraft used in its operations:

Su-24M,Su-25 aircraft performed 8 sorties eliminating #ISIS terrorist staff and ammunition depot near #Idlib & 3-level HQ centre at #Hamah

“A terrorist HQ and an ammunition depot were destroyed near Idlib, as were a fortified three-level command center near Hama," Konashenkov added. "A direct bomb hit also completely destroyed a workshop north of Homs that produced explosives and ammunition."

The ministry tweeted that steps had been taken to avoid civilian casualties.

#SYRIA To prevent civil population engagement #ISIS targets being assigned only outside inhabited areas and on confirmed recon data basis

However, BuzzFeed News correspondent Mike Giglio has spoken to residents in Hama who said civilians have been hit.

Dr. in Hama: "The Russian pilot will say he killed ISIS but I want to send him a message: you killed a woman + destroyed civilian buildings"

The ministry posted a video of airstrikes against four ISIS facilities overnight.

View this video on YouTube

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A spokesman for the Kremlin said Thursday that Russia's airstrikes in Syria are targeting a list of militant groups, and not just ISIS.

On Wednesday, Moscow said it would largely be targeting positions held by ISIS militants.

However, when asked by reporters if Russia and Western powers had different interpretations of what constitutes a terrorist group, spokesman Dmitriy Peskov said Thursday, "These organizations (on the target list) are well-known and the targets are chosen in coordination with the armed forces of Syria," Reuters reported.

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A senior diplomat from Saudi Arabia — one of Assad's main adversaries in the Middle East — condemned the loss of "innocent lives" and said Russia could not fight ISIS "terrorism" while supporting "terrorism" by Syria's government, Reuters reported.

Speaking to the Saudi owned al-Arabiya network in remarks reported by Reuters, the country's U.N. ambassador, Abdallah Al-Mouallimi said:

[We have] profound concern regarding the military operations which Russian forces have carried out in Homs and Hama today, places where ISIS forces are not present. These attacks led to a number of innocent victims. We demand it stop immediately and not recur.

As for those countries that have claimed recently to join in the fight against ISIS terrorism, they can't do that at the same time as they support the terrorism of the Syrian regime and its terrorist foreign allies like Hezbollah and the Quds Force and other terrorist sectarian groups.

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During his visit to the United States Wednesday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg spoke of his concerns that Russia was not targeting ISIS positions in its airstrikes in Syria, Reuters reported.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg pictured Sept. 22.
Sergei Chuzavkov / AP

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg pictured Sept. 22.

Stoltenberg said:

I'm concerned about the reports saying that the Russian air strikes were not targeted against ISIL.

I'm especially concerned because there has been no real effort by the Russian side to deconflict the Russian air strikes in Syria with the ongoing US-led coalition fighting ISIL.