BEIRUT: Regime forces advanced yesterday in western Syria in a “vast offensive” against armed opposition groups, as NATO voiced alarm at escalating Russian military activity in the war-torn country. Moscow has dramatically stepped up its nine-day-old air war against foes of President Bashar al-Assad, with heavy bombing by warplanes and cruise missile strikes from the Caspian Sea.
A Syrian military source told AFP yesterday that the army, backed by Russian raids and allied militia including the powerful Lebanese group Hezbollah, had advanced in a key mountain range. “They have seized most of the hilly region of Jeb Al-Ahmar” which overlooks the strategic Sahl Al-Ghab plain to the east and Assad’s coastal stronghold of Latakia to the west, the source said. The plain has been the focus of a months-long offensive by a rebel alliance including Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Al-Nusra Front.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group, confirmed that regime forces had advanced in the area. Moscow says it is striking the Islamic State jihadist organization and “other terrorists”. But Washington has accused Russia of targeting groups other than IS or Al-Nusra in more than 90 percent of its raids.
‘Consequences for Russia’
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said yesterday Russia would soon begin to suffer casualties. “This will have consequences for Russia itself which is rightly fearful of attacks … in coming days, the Russians will begin to suffer from casualties,” Carter said at a NATO defence ministers meeting in Brussels. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said there had been a “troubling escalation” in Moscow’s air campaign. “We will assess the latest developments and their implications for the security of the alliance,” he added. “This is particularly relevant in view of the recent violations of NATO’s airspace by Russian aircraft,” Stoltenberg said. Tensions between Russia and NATO member Turkey shot up this week after Russian aircraft infringed on Turkish airspace at least twice. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday warned Russia risked losing a deal to build his country’s first nuclear power plant and its status as its main gas supplier, as the diplomatic row intensified.
The Russian air war has provided cover for Assad’s ground troops, who have lost swathes of the north, east and south of the country to jihadists and rebel groups since the conflict erupted in 2011. The army appeared to regain ground yesterday, after its chief of staff General Ali Abdullah Ayoub announced “a vast offensive to defeat the terrorist groups” and restore control over opposition-held areas. Although Ayoub did not specify where the operation would take place, Syrian state TV reported that the army had targeted “terrorist positions” in the central province of Hama, killing 32 militants and destroying four armored vehicles. Russian and Syrian warplanes also conducted “precise strikes” on positions held by Al-Nusra Front in Latakia province, it said. A military source on the ground in the Sahl Al-Ghab plain told AFP that Russian air strikes had targeted at least three villages there yesterday morning.—AFP