Jerusalem—Russia has sent ground forces into battle for the first time in Syria, according to Kuwait daily, al-Rai.
The troops drove rebel forces from strategic positions, said the newspaper, which is close to the Damascus regime. It did not say when the troops went into action and there was no mention of casualties. The Russians are not known to have sizable forces in Syria but a small number of tanks have been seen.
Until now, Russia has confined itself to strikes by aircraft and cruise missiles against rebel forces and the Islamic State in Syria.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week in a meeting with military officials that they must prepare for the next stage of the battle.
“Our objectives are being fulfilled and fulfilled well,” he said, according to the RIA Novosti news agency. “But for now that is not enough to cleanse Syria of rebels and terrorists and to protect Russians from possible terrorist attacks. The military campaign has not achieved enough and a next phase is needed.”
A major question confronting Russia and Western countries is whether to insert enough of their own boots on the ground to march on Raqqa, the self-declared capital of the Islamic State. Some leaders have hinted in this direction but no one has committed.
In addition to protecting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, the Russian attacks have reportedly been directed in particular at Chechen fighters who are seen in Moscow as posing a threat after their return to the Caucasus.
Putin has in the past said that he has no intention of sending Russian troops into Syria but his rhetoric has taken on a more militant tone since Islamic State’s attack in Paris. The Russian air efforts in Syria have been substantially increased in the days since then.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said last weekend that Russian warplanes flew 522 sorties over Syria in four days last week and destroyed more than 800 targets. The number of aircraft assigned to the Syrian campaign had been doubled to 69, he said.
Additionally, he said, cruise missiles fired from warships in the Caspian Sea more than 900 miles from Syria had destroyed numerous targets and killed 600 rebels. He also claimed that aircraft had destroyed 15 Islamic State oil facilities in Syria as well as 525 fuel trucks, depriving the Islamic State of $1.5 million in daily income.
The British-based Syrian Observer Group, which receives its information from numerous informants within Syria, said that Russian air efforts have indeed been stepped up in recent days but that overall more Syrian civilians have been killed in these strikes, some 403, than fighters from Islamic State and rebel groups—381.