IRBIL, Iraq – Russian forces supporting embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad fired 26 cruise missiles from ships based in the Caspian Sea into western Syria on Wednesday in a new sign of Russian commitment to its involvement in Syria.
The strikes, spanning almost 1,000 miles of precision flight, were by far the longest range attack by Russian forces in modern history.
The cruise missiles flew over the Caucasus Mountains, Iran and Iraq before veering toward Islamic State held areas in the western portion of Syria, shocking military analysts as the weapons systems used were not previously thought to have such long range capability.
“We knew that both the Gepard frigate and Buyan corvettes were capable of launching land-attack cruise missiles, but the apparent range of the missiles has come as a surprise to us,” said Jeremy Binnie, a weapons expert for Janes IHS, the London based defense think tank.
The direction from which the attack occurred also was something of a surprise. While Western news media have noted that Russia had recently dispatched four ships to the Mediterranean, to Syria’s west, little public notice has been given to Russian ship deployments in the Caspian, a landlocked body of water bordered on all sides by Russian allies or former Soviet republics.
The attack was announced on Russian state television during a televised meeting on Wednesday between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his top military advisers.
“Besides using aviation to destroy militants, this morning ships from the Caspian Flotilla were brought in, four destroyers launched 26 Kalibr sea-based cruise missiles at 11 targets,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told Putin in a meeting televised by Rossiya-1.
“The fact that we launched high-precision missiles from the Caspian Sea at approximately 1,500 kilometers [932 miles] and hit all of the targets says much about the good training in the military-industrial complex and good skills of the staff,” he added.
The Kalibr supersonic cruise missile was deployed this summer after seven years of testing and development. Although the missile system had been seen as a potential threat to Western European targets, the evidence it has an effective range of more than 900 miles surprised analysts of Russian military hardware.
The cruise missile strikes came as Russian forces based in western Syria unleashed what appears to be its heaviest day of strikes yet in the week-long air campaign against Syrian rebels, apparently in support of what Syrian officials told the Associated Press is a new ground offensive to retake rebel-held areas in Idlib, Hama and Homs provinces. Most of the Russian airstrikes of the past week have been concentrated in those areas.
After a summer of significant setbacks at the hands of both anti-government groups and the Islamic State, the Syrian government is widely expected to use Russia’s new support to push out from the government-controlled areas in the western third of the country.
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