WORLD NEWS Gov’t re­tak­ing ter­ri­tory

Ac­tivists say civil­ians are tak­ing the brunt of of­fen­sive to de­feat Is­lamic State

The Expositor (Brantford) - - WORLD NEWS - NATALIYA VASILYEVA

ALEPPO, Syria — Rus­sia’s mil­i­tary said Tues­day that Syr­ian troops have re­taken about 85 per cent of the ter­ri­tory once con­trolled by mil­i­tants, a ma­jor turn­around two years af­ter Moscow in­ter­vened to lend a hand to its em­bat­tled ally.

Rus­sia has been pro­vid­ing air cover for Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s troops since 2015, chang­ing the tide of the war and giv­ing Syr­ian and al­lied troops an ad­van­tage over op­po­si­tion fight­ers and Is­lamic State mil­i­tants.

Lt. Gen. Alexan­der Lapin an­nounced the gains at the He­meimeem air base in Syria, say­ing mil­i­tants still con­trol some 27,000 sq. km.

Re­porters were later flown to the city of Aleppo, which op­po­si­tion fight­ers lost to the Syr­ian govern­ment in late 2016, and where Rus­sian mil­i­tary po­lice pa­trol some ar­eas.

Syr­ian troops, with Rus­sian air sup­port and ac­com­pa­nied by Iran­backed fight­ers, have in re­cent weeks pushed Is­lamic State mil­i­tants out of cen­tral Homs prov­ince, near the bor­der with Le­banon, and are now fight­ing them in the oil­rich Deir el-Zour prov­ince in the east.

A week ago, Syr­ian troops broke a nearly three-year-old Is­lamic State siege on govern­ment-held parts of the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal.

But ac­tivists say civil­ians are bear­ing the brunt of the of­fen­sive. An overnight airstrike hit Syr­i­ans who were re­cently dis­placed from Deir el-Zour, killing at least eight civil­ians.

The Bri­tain-based Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights and Omar Abu Laila, who runs a group that mon­i­tors de­vel­op­ments in Deir el-Zour, said the airstrikes were sus­pected to be from Rus­sian air­craft.

Is­lamic State still con­trols much of the Euphrates River Val­ley, in east­ern Syria, and pock­ets of ter­ri­tory else­where in Syria and Iraq. Al al- Qaida-linked group con­trols the north­ern Idlib prov­ince, bor­der­ing Turkey, while Syr­ian rebels main­tain a dwin­dling num­ber of en­claves else­where.

On Tues­day, Rus­sian De­fence Min­is­ter Sergei Shoigu and As­sad met in Da­m­as­cus to dis­cuss mea­sures to elim­i­nate Is­lamic State, the Rus­sian De­fence Min­istry said.

As­sad’s for­tunes have changed dra­mat­i­cally since Rus­sia en­tered the com­plex civil war two years ago. At the time, his over­stretched forces were re­treat­ing in the face of a rebel of­fen­sive in the north.

Moscow be­gan de­ploy­ing an air force con­tin­gent and other mil­i­tary as­sets at the He­meimeem base, in the heart­land of As­sad’s Alaw­ite re­li­gious mi­nor­ity, in Au­gust 2015.

In a mat­ter of weeks, Rus­sia’s mil­i­tary built up the base so it could host dozens of Rus­sian jets. It de­liv­ered thou­sands of tonnes of mil­i­tary equip­ment and sup­plies by sea and cargo planes in an op­er­a­tion dubbed the “Syr­ian Ex­press.” A month later, Moscow de­clared the launch of its air cam­paign in Syria.

In April 2016, As­sad’s forces, re­ly­ing on Rus­sian air sup­port, scored a ma­jor sym­bolic vic­tory by tak­ing the an­cient town of Palmyra from Is­lamic State. The mil­i­tants re­took it in a coun­terof­fen­sive, but were driven out again in March.

As­sad’s great­est vic­tory in the war, now in its sev­enth year, came when his troops and al­lied mili­tias gained full con­trol of Aleppo.

Se­nior Rus­sian mil­i­tary of­fi­cers as well as spe­cial forces were de­ployed along­side Syr­ian govern­ment troops, pro­vid­ing train­ing, plan­ning of­fen­sives and co­or­di­nat­ing airstrikes. Rus­sia has also de­ployed its lat­est weapons to the Syr­ian con­flict, in­clud­ing state-of-the art Kal­ibr cruise mis­siles launched by Rus­sian strate­gic bombers, navy sur­face war­ships and sub­marines.

Rus­sia’s De­fence Min­istry has not said how many troops it has in Syria, but turnout fig­ures in vot­ing from abroad in the Septem­ber 2016 par­lia­men­tary elec­tions in­di­cated Rus­sian mil­i­tary per­son­nel in the na­tion at the time likely ex­ceeded 4,300.

The Rus­sian mil­i­tary said last week 34 of its ser­vice­men have been killed in Syria.

Rus­sia has also co-spon­sored talks with op­po­si­tion fight­ers and the govern­ment to ne­go­ti­ate lo­cal cease­fires, and set up “de-es­ca­la­tion zones” cred­ited with re­duc­ing fight­ing around the coun­try. A new round of talks is set for later this week.

GE­ORGE OURFALIAN/GETTY IMAGES

A Syr­ian youth car­ries a bag of pota­toes in the east­ern city of Deir Ez­zor, Syria, dur­ing a food de­liv­ery on Mon­day as Syr­ian govern­ment forces con­tinue to press for­ward with Rus­sian air cover in the of­fen­sive against Is­lamic State mil­i­tants across the prov­ince.

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