Russia and Syria have launched what appears to be their first major coordinated military operation as Moscow unleashed aerial bombings and cruise-missile strikes from warships to support a ground offensive by Syrian forces against insurgents.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said four Russian warships stationed in the Caspian Sea fired a total of 26 rockets that traveled nearly 1,500 kilometers and hit Islamic State (IS) targets in western Syria. He said the operation destroyed all of its targets and did not strike civilian areas.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told Shoigu in a televised meeting that Russia's dramatic escalation of its air war over Syria "will be synchronized with the actions of the Syrian Army on the ground and the actions of our air force will effectively support the offensive operation of the Syrian Army."
AFP quoted an unidentified Syrian military source as saying that government troops and allied forces launched a broad ground operation with Russian air cover in Syria's central Hama Province on October 7.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), meanwhile, said that Russian warplanes carried out "intense" new strikes in two Syrian provinces.
It said the air attack hit four locations in the central Hama Province and three locations in the northwestern Idlib Province.
SOHR said there were no immediate reports on casualties from the attacks, which it said were "more intense than usual."
The monitoring group's director, Rami Abdel Rahman, said that "for the first time the strikes were accompanied by fighting on the ground between regime forces and rebels."
IS militants have seized large swaths of Syrian territory in the civil war that emerged from antigovernment protests in 2011. But the areas in western Syria that were attacked in the October 7 joint operation are held by rebel groups that are opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- not IS forces.
Some of these groups have been trained and armed by the United States, which has accused Russia of targeting all opposition forces -- including moderate and Islamist rebels -- and not just the IS group that a U.S.-led coalition has been targeting in Syria and Iraq for more than one year.
The commander of one U.S.-supported rebel group, Liwa Suqour al-Jabal, told Reuters on October 7 that Russian air strikes had destroyed its main weapons depot in the western Aleppo Province.
The group is one of a number of Syrian rebel militias deemed moderate by Washington that have received training as part of a CIA program separate from one set up by the Pentagon to train and equip Syrian insurgents to battle IS militants.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in televised comments on October 7 that only two of Russia's 57 air strikes in Syria have hit the IS group, while the rest have been against the moderate opposition forces in northwestern Syria fighting Assad.
Speaking on his 63rd birthday, Putin told Shoigu that it was too early to discuss the success of Russia's military operation in Syria, which began on September 30. He ordered his defense minister to pursue cooperation with the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq in the military campaign.
Shoigu said Moscow had "finalized consideration" of a document submitted by the United States and said, "we are ready to coordinate this document and start working under it."
He added that Russia had summoned foreign military attaches in Moscow and suggested they supply Moscow with any intelligence on IS positions.
"Today we are expecting a reply from our colleagues and we hope they will tell us about those targets which they have," Shoigu said.
But U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on October 7 that the United States had not agreed to cooperate militarily with Russia in Syria because its strategy was "tragically flawed."
Speaking in Rome, Carter renewed U.S. accusations that Russia's strikes were not focused on IS militants, adding that it was a "fundamental mistake."
He said, however, that Washington was prepared to carry out basic, technical discussions with Moscow on pilot safety.
The Russian Defense Ministry fired back, saying it believes that the U.S.-led coalition against the IS group has "not always" been striking terrorist targets.
Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov was also quoted as saying Washington's refusal to share intelligence with it about the positions of IS militants showed the United States was "looking for reasons to refuse us cooperation in the fight against international terrorism."
The Russian Foreign Ministry said Moscow was also "ready to establish contacts" with Syria's main Western-backed moderate opposition group, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), to find a political solution to the war.
The ministry said Russia wanted to include the FSA in preparation for "a political settlement of the Syrian crisis through negotiations between the Syrian government and the patriotic opposition."
Meanwhile, the U.S. ambassador to NATO on October 7 said Russia's military build-up in Syria included a "considerable and growing" naval presence, long-range rockets, and a battalion of ground troops backed by Moscow's most modern tanks.
"There is a considerable and growing Russian naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean, more than 10 ships now, which is a bit out of the ordinary," Ambassador Doug Lute said on the eve of a meeting of the alliance's defense ministers in Brussels.
"The recent Russian reinforcements over the last week or so feature a battalion-sized ground force," Lute added. "There is artillery, there are long-range rocket capabilities, there are air-defense capabilities."
A battalion is typically made up of around 1,000 soldiers.
Russian officials stressed on October 6 that Moscow will not deploy ground troops in Syria, and said it was not recruiting volunteers to fight on the side of Assad's forces.
The remarks from the Kremlin, Foreign Ministry, and parliament came a day after a senior lawmaker said it was likely that Russian volunteers would travel to Syria to fight alongside government forces.
Russia "is not calling any volunteers to go to Syria, is not enlisting anyone," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said at a weekly briefing.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and AP