Clashes Intensify in Syria From Russian-Backed Offensive

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) -
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Thursday. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Thursday. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

Clashes intensified Thursday between Syrian troops and insurgents in central and northwestern Syria, part of what a top general called a “wide-ranging” offensive aided by Russian airstrikes and apparently aimed at clearing positions near government strongholds on the coast.

U.S. defense officials said as many as four of the 26 long-range cruise missiles that Russia said Wednesday it fired at Syria landed instead in Iran, but it was unclear if they caused any significant damage. Russia said all of its missiles fired from warships hit their targets.

Russia’s involvement in Syria, which began with airstrikes Sept. 30 and escalated Wednesday with cruise missiles, “raises serious concerns,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said after a meeting of the alliance’s defense ministers in Brussels.

Russia says its air campaign in Syria is aimed against terrorists from the Islamic State and al-Qaida-linked groups, but the West accuses it of intervening to support President Bashar against even moderate rebels in the civil war.

The Syrian government’s multipronged offensive began Wednesday, and state-run media said it seized several villages in central Syria, with fighting continuing Thursday. The government media and activists reported heavy fighting in Sahl al-Ghab, a vital plain bordering Assad’s stronghold of Latakia on the Mediterranean.

Islamic State has strongholds in Raqqa and Aleppo provinces, while Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate, the Nusra Front, has a strong presence in Idlib. Meanwhile NATO has signaled its readiness to defend Turkey if needed from any threats from Moscow. Russian jets twice violated Turkish airspace over the weekend.

“NATO is able and ready to defend all allies, including Turkey, against any threat,” Stoltenberg said.