— -- Russian troops in Syria used artillery and multiple rocket launchers to fire at Syrian rebel positions Wednesday, in what appears to be a further expansion of the Russian military’s role to support the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. The development came on the same day that Russia launched two dozen cruise missiles from navy ships in the Caspian Sea aimed at what it said were ISIS targets in Syria.
According to U.S. officials, Russian ground troops used howitzer artillery and BM-30 “Smerch” multiple rocket launch systems to fire at rebel positions outside of the city of Hama, located 65 miles east of the Russian air hub established in Latakia. The officials said the Russians are acting in a support role to Syrian troops conducting combat operations in the Al-Ghab Valley north of Hama -- the same area that seems to be the focus of Russian air strikes.
Addressing the movement of the equipment to Hama, Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis told reporters, “What we're seeing appears to be them doing things that are additive to and enabling of regime operations that are not being conducted against ISIL. They're being conducted against other regime opponents.”
Russia had moved the artillery and rocket launchers into Hama this past weekend along with three Mi-24 “hind” helicopters that appear to have been used to ferry personnel to man that equipment. U.S. officials said there are no indications that the helicopters have been used in combat situations.
Until now, Russian military activity in Syria had been limited to airstrikes that Russia has said are targeting ISIS fighters. American officials have disputed that, saying the areas being targeted by Russian aircraft are not held by ISIS, but rather by other extremist groups or moderate rebels who have received training and equipment from the CIA.
Meanwhile a U.S. official says the number of Russian military personnel now in Syria has grown to at least 2,000, most of whom remain at the airbase in Latakia that Russia has developed into its main air hub in Syria.
The Russian ground activity came on the same day that country's navy launched 23 cruise missiles into Syria from ships located 900 miles away in the land-locked Caspian Sea.
It marked the first time that Russia has ever used cruise missiles in combat and while Russian President Vladimir Putin said they “hit targets precisely” Pentagon officials said there were no reports of large strikes in areas held by ISIS.
One U.S. official noted that the cruise missile strikes were intended to demonstrate the reach of Russian military capabilities since other weapons platforms already in Syria carry much more firepower than the cruise missiles.
A Pentagon spokesman said it did not appear that the U.S. military in Iraq had been notified in advance of the Russian strikes.
In Rome, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said that the U.S. has yet to hear back from Russia about a second round of technical talks intended to prevent close encounters between Russian and American military aircraft over the skies of Syria.
A U.S. official said that in the interim the U.S. military has developed flight restrictions that American aircraft will not come closer than 20 miles to Russian aircraft and will modify their flight plans if that is the case.
The Pentagon confirmed Wednesday that there had been at least one instance where an American military aircraft had to adjust its flight pattern because Russian aircraft came within that limit. A Defense official said the incident this past weekend involved American F-16’s flying over eastern Syria that deviated their flight pattern when a Russian aircraft came within the 20 mile limit.
Officials also confirmed that on several occasions Russian aircraft had come within a handful of miles of American unmanned drones flying over Syria.