Intense fighting in central Syria amid government gains

Intense fighting in central Syria amid government gains
The Syrian army backed by allied militia have made advances as heavy Russian airstrikes continued, activists said on Sunday.
5 min read
11 October, 2015
Strikes have focused on areas in Hama province and neighbouring Idlib [Getty]

Activists reported intense fighting between insurgents and Syrian troops in the country's center amid new territorial gains for the government, backed by Russian airstrikes.

The fighting Sunday is on multiple fronts in the northern part of the central province of Hama and southern Idlib, the province controlled by a coalition of rebel groups.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says there were also intense clashes and Russian airstrikes in rural Latakia, the coastal province that is a stronghold of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The fighting comes after government troops seized two villages in central Syria, Atshan and Tal Sukayk, between Hama and Idlib. The Observatory said the rebels advanced on a hill overlooking Atshan overnight.

Russia started launching airstrikes in Syria on Sept.30, facilitating the government ground offensive.

Syria's state news agency SANA also said Tal Sukayk was now under Syrian army control after an "extensive military operation" on the ground backed by Russia air strikes against "terrorist organisations" in the area. 

It said the military had destroyed weapons, ammunition and equipment during the offensive and that 50 enemy fighters had been killed in the air strikes. The Observatory and Lebanon-based TV channel al-Mayadeen said a senior Hizballah fighter had also been killed in clashes.

Idlib is mainly held by the Army of Conquest, an Islamist insurgent alliance that includes al Qaeda's Syria wing Nusra Front but not the ultra hardline Islamic State group Russia says is the focus of its airstrikes.

Russian strikes have focused on areas in Hama province and neighbouring Idlib where insurgents have advanced in recent months. Their advance had threatened government-held territory further west including coastal areas vital to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's control of the country.

The highway that runs from the capital Damascus in the south up through Homs, Hama to Aleppo in the north is vital for controlling populous parts of the country.

Syria's military, backed allied militias on the ground and Russia in the air launched a major attack last week in Syria's west to recapture land lost to insurgents near the coastal heartland of Assad's minority Alawite sect. 

Strikes target US funded rebels 

CIA-backed rebels in Syria, who had begun to put serious pressure on President Bashar Assad's forces, are now under Russian bombardment with little prospect of rescue by their American patrons, US officials say.  

Over the past week, Russia has directed parts of its air campaign against US-funded groups and other moderate opposition in a concerted effort to weaken them, the officials say. The Obama administration has few options to defend those it had secretly armed and trained.  

The Russians "know their targets, and they have a sophisticated capacity to understand the battlefield situation," said Republican Rep. Mike Pompeo, who serves on the House Intelligence Committee and was careful not to confirm a classified programme.

"They are bombing in locations that are not connected to the Islamic State" group.  

The CIA began a covert operation in 2013 to arm, fund and train a moderate opposition to Assad. Over that time, the CIA has trained an estimated 10,000 fighters, although its

     Probably 60 to 80 percent of the arms that America shovelled in have gone to al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Joshua Landis - University of Oklahoma.

current size isn't clear.  

The effort was separate from the one run by the military, which trained militants willing to promise to take on IS exclusively. That programme was widely considered a failure, and on Friday, the Defense Department announced it was abandoning the goal of a US-trained Syrian force, instead opting to equip established groups to fight IS.  

For years, the CIA effort had foundered so much so that over the summer, some in Congress proposed cutting its budget. Some CIA-supported rebels had been captured; others had defected to extremist groups. The secret CIA program is the only way the US is taking on Assad militarily. In public, the United States has focused its efforts on fighting IS and urging Assad to leave office voluntarily.  

"Probably 60 to 80 percent of the arms that America shovelled in have gone to al-Qaeda and its affiliates," said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma.   

But in recent months, CIA-backed groups, fighting alongside more extremist factions, began to make progress in Syria's south and northwest, American officials say. In July and August,US-supported rebels seized territory on the al-Ghab plain, in northwest Syria's Idlib and Hama governorates. The plain is a natural barrier between areas controlled by Sunni Muslims and the Alawite sect to which Assad and his loyalists belong. The capture of the al-Ghab plain was seen as a breakthrough toward weakening the Alawites.  

Those and other gains put Damascus, the capital, at risk, officials say.   

But in recent days, Russian airstrikes have hit groups in the area, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank that closely tracks the situation.

Russian bombs and missiles have hit specific buildings associated with the moderate Syrian opposition, according to a U.S. official briefed on the intelligence.

Russian officials have insisted they are bombing Islamic State militants and other terrorists.

US intelligence officials see many factors motivating Russia's intervention: Moscow's reasserting its primacy as a great power, propping up Assad and wanting to deal a blow to the United States, which has insisted that Assad must go to end Syria's civil war.  

Russia is also interested in containing IS, an organization that includes thousands of Chechen fighters who may pose a threat to Russia, officials say.    

But in the short term, "my conclusion is that the timing of their intervention was driven by Assad really going critical," said Democratic Rep. Jim Himes, also a House Intelligence Committee member.  

The administration is scrambling to come up with a response to Russia's moves, but few believe the U.S. can protect its secret rebel allies.

The administration has all but ruled out providing CIA-backed groups with surface-to-air missiles that can down aircraft, fearing such weapons would end up in the wrong hands, officials say.