Syria army advances near Aleppo

Beirut, October 17

Syrian regime forces edged forward in the northern province of Aleppo today with air cover from Russian warplanes, but faced fierce resistance from rebel forces in the country’s centre.

Since Moscow began its air campaign in support of its Damascus ally on September 30, the army and its allies have launched four ground offensives against rebel forces in northern and central Syria.

Troops have gone on the attack in Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Latakia provinces taking advantage of Russian air strikes against al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front and other rebel groups.

Three senior Nusra members, one of them a US-designated “global terrorist”, were killed in an air strike in Aleppo province yesterday, a monitoring group said.

Regime forces control the western part of Aleppo city — Syria’s pre-war economic hub — but much of the surrounding province is held by rebel groups — Al-Qaeda and others in the west and IS in the east.

Troops seized at least five villages and several strategic hilltops south of the city today, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. That brought them to the edges of Al-Hader, 25 km from Aleppo.

“Taking this village would allow the regime to secure a supply line for the army between Aleppo and the central province of Hama, and would put the rebel’s own supply route in their line of fire,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.

He said that over the previous 24 hours, 17 rebels and eight pro-regime fighters had been killed. Some 2,000 families fled the fighting.

A US official said as many as 2,000 fighters from Iran and its regional allies were supporting the army’s offensive in coordination with Russia.

A Syrian military source told AFP that troops had also advanced to within six kilometres of Kweyris military airport, east of Aleppo city, which has been under siege by fighters of the Islamic State group.

If the army succeeds in

securing the airbase, it could be used by Russia planes — currently flying out of the Hmeimim base in Latakia province on the Mediterranean coast — to launch sorties and strikes, the Observatory said.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Moscow’s air war was an attempt to protect its own national interests and security, amid reports that thousands of fighters from the former Soviet Union are fighting with IS in Syria.

“Of course we are not fighting for specific leaders, we are defending our national interests, on the one hand,” Medvedev said. “And secondly, we have a request from the lawful authorities (of Syria). That is the basis we are working on,” he said.