By ANNE BARNARD and ANDREW E. KRAMER
Backed by Russian warplanes, the Syrian army began a ground offensive Wednesday against rebel forces in northern Hama province, while the Kremlin said it had fired 26 cruise missiles on Syrian targets from naval vessels in the Caspian Sea.
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Although in its early stages, the coordinated assault reveals the outline of a new alliance between Syria and its main allies — Hezbollah, Iran and Russia — said an official with that alliance, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the parties had not detailed the coordination of military strategy.
The offensive aims to retake areas gained in the spring by an insurgent coalition, the Army of Conquest, that threated the government-held coastal province of Latakia, the homeland of President Bashar al-Assad and fellow members of his Alawite sect. It was the first time since those spring setbacks that the government’s forces had moved “from defense to offense,” the official said.
Russian diplomats, a senior Foreign Ministry official said, have asked the United States to identify armed groups other than units of the Syrian Army that are fighting the Islamic State and that should be avoided in airstrikes, but the official said the Russians had not yet received an answer.
“If there are some forces that also have weapons in their hands and are on the ground fighting, as the coalition says, with the Islamic State, and they should not be touched, then wonderful,” the official said. “Give the list, give the call signs of these people. Tell us where are they located, explain why they shouldn’t be touched. Indeed, this information is not provided.”