Fierce bat­tles roil Syria

Heavy ground of­fen­sive in cen­tral re­gion amid Rus­sian airstrikes

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY AL­BERT AJI

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.

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