Russia's week-long military involvement in Syria appeared to escalate sharply on Wednesday, with Moscow launching cruise missiles from the far-away Caspian Sea while also backing Syrian government troops on the ground in fighting against Syrian rebel groups.
Russia's involvement has seemingly emboldened the military efforts of ally Bashar Al-Assad, Syria’s president, whose forces had faced a string of setbacks in northwestern Syrian over the past several months.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-Assad group that monitors the Syrian conflict, said a government offensive began on four fronts early Wednesday in the northwestern provinces of Idlib and neighboring Hama. Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman said it is "the most intense fighting in months." Activist Ahmad al-Ahmad, who is currently in Idlib, said government troops are "heavily" shelling central areas after rebels attacked an army post and destroyed a tank.
Russia started its air campaign in Syria saying it would target the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but its mission has been a broad-based campaign to support Assad against a variety of rebel groups, including those who have received U.S. backing, Syrian activists and U.S. officials say.
Yet Russia appeared to have ISIL in its crosshairs on Wednesday, with four Russian warships in the Caspian Sea launching 26 rockets at ISIL positions that hit their targets, Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and President Vladimir Putin said in a joint television appearance on Wednesday.
The rockets would have passed over Iran and Iraq to reach their targets, covering what Shoigu described as a distance of almost 900 miles, a far-reaching projection of Russian military capability demonstrating its ramped-up involvement in the conflict.
Syrian state media made no mention of the reported coordinated Russian-Syrian attacks in western areas, saying instead that Russian aircraft had targeted ISIL positions around Aleppo.
But the Observatory and al-Ahmad said the main launching point for government forces is the town of Morek on the highway that links the capital Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest city and former commercial center. Rebels have controlled areas on the highway since 2012.
The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said rebels were able to destroy two tanks and an armored personnel carrier in northern parts of Hama province near Idlib.
ISIL has no presence in the area that was attacked by ground troops on Wednesday but Al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, is active in central and northern Syria, as are Western-backed rebels.
In conversation with Shoigu, Putin said it was too early to talk about the results of Russia's operations in Syria and ordered his minister to continue cooperation with the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq on the crisis.
However, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the U.S. would not cooperate militarily with Russia in Syria, although it was willing to hold basic, technical discussions to secure the safety of its own pilots bombing ISIL targets.
Calling Moscow's strategy "tragically flawed," he renewed accusations that the strikes were not focused on ISIL.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, part of the U.S.-led anti-ISIL coalition in Syria, said only two of 57 Russian airstrikes in Syria so far had hit the group, while the rest had been against the moderate opposition, the only forces fighting the hardline fighters in northwestern Syria.
"If (the Syrian regime) weakens the opposition, it will strengthen Islamic State," he said, warning of the risk of a new flow of refugees, who have left Syria in droves, overwhelming neighboring countries and causing a crisis in the European Union.
Turkey and Russia have come at loggerheads in recent days over several incidences in which Turkey says Russia violated its airspace. Ankara summoned Russia's ambassador for the third time in four days over the reported violations, which NATO has said appeared to be deliberate and were "extremely dangerous."
Al Jazeera and wire services