Fierce battles roil Syria
Heavy ground offensive in central region amid Russian airstrikes
damascus, syria — Syrian troops backed by Russian airstrikes seized a village in central Syria on Saturday amid fierce clashes with rebels, part of a ground offensive launched last week.
That offensive marked the first major air-and-ground assault since Moscow began its military campaign in Syria on Sept. 30. Russian officials say the airstrikes are targeting mainly Islamic State militants, but most strikes are hitting areas where the extremist group is not present.
The fighting is concentrated in Hama and the northern province of Idlib, where a consortium of mainstream rebels, as well as Jabhat al-Nusra — al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria— are operating.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists across Syria, said government troops seized control of Atshan on Friday amid intense Russian airstrikes in the region. It said troops also seized the nearby village of Um Hartein.
Syrian troops have faced stiff resistance from the rebels, who have used advanced U.S.-made TOW missiles to attack Syrian tanks and armored vehicles.
The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement that Russian planes had flown 64 sorties and targeted 54 sites in the previous 24 hours. Amongthe sites attacked, it said, were command outposts in Aleppo and Idlib provinces.
Russia, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has insisted its airstrikes are targeting the Islamic State and other terrorists. But U.S. officials said this week that Russia has directed parts of its air campaign against U.S.-funded groups and other moderate opposition groups in a concerted effort to weaken them.
The Russian airstrikes come as a U.S.-led coalition wages its own air campaign against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. U.S. defense officials held a 90-minute secure videoconference with their Russian counterparts Saturday to discuss steps to “promote safe flight operations over Syria.”
“The discussions were professional and focused narrowly on the implementation of specific safety procedures,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said in a statement.
The Observatory for Human Rights said Russian warplanes on Saturday bombed a headquarters of the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham rebel group in Saraqeb, in Idlib province. There was no immediate confirmation or details.
Heavy fighting was also taking place in the al-Ghab plain in Hama province — a natural barrier between areas controlled by Sunni Muslims and the Alawite sect to which Assad and many of his loyalists belong.
Syria’s conflict, which has killed more than 250,000 people in the past four years, has displaced half the country’s pre-war population of 23 million people. A U.S.-led coalition has been striking Islamic State targets in Syria for over a year.
A military official quoted by Syria’s state-run SANA news agency said Saturday that two F-16s from the U.S.-led coalition violated Syrian airspace and targeted civilian infrastructure in Aleppo.
The official, who was not named, said the strikes destroyed two power plants in the Radwaniyah area east of Aleppo, causing a blackout.
The head of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes key rebel backers Saudi Arabia and Qatar, said Russia could help defeat the Islamic State if it works with other nations battling the extremists.
“I am not downplaying the difficulties. The war against Daesh and defeating its dangers is possible if the opposing parties against Daesh, among them Russians, work together properly,” GCC Secretary General Abdullatif al-Zayani said at an event in Abu Dhabi, referring to the Islamic State by its Arabic acronym.