Clashes between Russia-backed Syria army, rebels

Syrian troops are backed by Russian air strikes and cruise missiles fired from the Caspian Sea

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The Syrian army, backed by Russian air strikes, fought heavy battles with insurgents for control of a hilltop close to President Bashar al-Assad's coastal heartland, a monitor and rebels said on Thursday.

The fighting was centered around Jub al Ahmar, a highland area in Latakia province which if captured would allow the army to more effectively pound rebel positions from the Ghab Plain that it overlooks, said Rami Abdulrahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“Fighting has been intensifying in the vicinity of the strategic Jub al Ahmar heights with some progress by the army but no decisive gains so far,” Abdulrahman told Reuters.

The army announced on Thursday it had extended a major offensive to the Plain area whose capture from rebel groups, including al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front would help secure Assad’s coastal heartlands and could provide a platform to drive the rebels back from other areas.

The rebels thrust into the area in late July after seizing much of the northwestern province of Idlib.

Rebel sources also said the army aided by Russian jets shelled the insurgent held town of Salma, which located northeast of Latakia and is a major frontline between rebels and government forces.

“This area is shelled daily but we have not seen this intensity before with heavy mortars and artillery and Russian bombing of our positions,” said Abu Ibrahim al Hifnawi, a rebel from Ahrar al Sham insurgent group.

27 targets hit in Homs, Hama, Raqqa

Meanwhile, Russia’s air force hit 27 “terrorist” targets in Syria overnight, the defence ministry said, as Moscow ramped up its campaign in the war-torn country.

“Russian warplanes conducted 22 sorties overnight. The crews of Sukhoi Su-34, Sukhoi Su-24M and Sukhoi Su-25 aircraft struck 27 terrorist targets on Syrian territory,” the defence ministry said in a statement.

Eight strongholds destroyed

The ministry said it had destroyed eight ISIS strongholds near populated areas in the Homs province, and hit 11 training camps affiliated with the jihadist group in the Hama and Raqqa provinces.

“As a result of the strikes, the infrastructure used for the training of terrorists has been destroyed,” the statement said.

The Russian military also claimed it had struck underground hideouts used by militants near the villages of Salma and Arafit, located in the coastal Latakia province.

Moscow launched its bombing campaign in Syria last week, firing missiles from fighter jets and warships in the Caspian Sea, at targets it says belong to IS and other "terrorist" groups.

The Syrian army says it has launched a "vast offensive" with Russian air cover, lending weight to fears from the US and its allies that Moscow's intervention aims mainly to bolster its long-standing ally President Bashar al-Assad.

First major coordinated assault

Wednesday’s operation in Hama appeared to be the first major assault coordinated between Syrian troops and militia on the ground, and Russian warplanes and naval ships.

The Ghab Plain, also in Hama, lies next to a mountain range that forms the heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect.

Recapturing it from the alliance of rebel groups, including al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front which thrust into the area in late July, would help secure Assad’s coastal heartlands and could provide a platform to drive the rebels back from other areas.

A fighter from the Ajnad al-Sham insurgent group who uses the name Abu al-Baraa al-Hamawi told Reuters that Russian jets had been bombing since dawn. It was not the first time the Russians had bombed the area, but this was their most ferocious attack, he said, speaking via an Internet messaging service.

“There is an attempt by the regime to advance but the situation is under our control,” he said.

“God willing we will repeat the massacre of the north Hama countryside as happened yesterday,” Hamawi added, referring to the strikes on the tanks. “We have faced more violent attacks than this in the past.”

Russian air strikes started last week and have mostly focused in areas of western Syria where Assad has sought to shore up his control after losing swathes of the rest of the country to insurgents including ISIS.

Russia says it is fighting ISIS in Syria. But while the group has been the target of some of its air strikes, it has no foothold in the areas of western Syria targeted in the attacks on Wednesday and Thursday.

Neighboring Turkey has been angered by violations of its air space by Russian warplanes and NATO said it was prepared to send troops to Turkey to defend its ally.

“NATO is ready and able to defend all allies, including Turkey against any threats,” NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters as he arrived for a meeting in Brussels of the alliance’s defence ministers which is likely to be dominated by the war in Syria.

“NATO has already responded by increasing our capacity, our ability, our preparedness to deploy forces including to the south, including in Turkey,” he said, adding that Russia’s air and cruise missile strikes were “reasons for concern.”

Russia’s involvement had only served to make the conflict more dangerous, British defence minister Michael Fallon said, and he urged Russia to use its influence to stop the Assad government from bombing civilians.

Reacting to the Russian air space violations, Turkey meanwhile told Russia there were other places it could obtain natural gas and other countries that could build its first nuclear plant.

“We can’t accept the current situation. Russia’s explanations on the air space violations are not convincing,” President Tayyip Erdogan told Turkish newspapers.

(With Reuters, AFP)

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