Islamic State fighters have seized villages close to the northern city of Aleppo from rival insurgents, a monitoring group said on Friday, despite an intensifying Russian air-and-sea campaign that Moscow says has targeted the militant group.
The Russian defense ministry said stepped-up air strikes on rebel positions in Syria killed 300 anti-Assad rebels and that it hit 60 Islamic State targets over the last day. There was no independent confirmation of the death toll.
About 200 insurgents were killed in an attack on the Liwa al-Haqq group in Raqqa province while 100 died in Aleppo, the defense ministry said. Two Islamic State commanders were amongst the dead in Russia’s most intense raids since it launched strikes in Syria 10 days ago. In previous updates Russia has reported hitting 10 targets daily.
However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the fighting, said there had been no significant advances by government forces backed by allied militia in areas where ground offensives were launched this week. “It’s back and forth,” said Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Observatory.
Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps said separately one of its generals had been killed near Aleppo, once Syria’s most populous city. Iran, like Russia an ally of President Bashar al-Assad, says it has advisers in the country.
Islamic State is now within 2 km of government-held territory on the northern edge of Aleppo which has suffered widespread damage and disease during the four-year civil war that erupted in the wake of protests against Assad.
Syria’s military, backed by Russia, Iran and allied militias, has launched a major attack in Syria’s west to recapture land lost to non-IS rebels near the heartland of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an area vital to his survival.
A senior regional official close to the Syrian government said: “The Iranians are at the heart of the battle, with strength and effectiveness. Yes they are participating.”
As the operation in the west pushed ahead, Islamic State said its fighters had captured five villages in its northern offensive and killed more than 10 soldiers or militiamen.
The British-based Observatory said it was the biggest advance by Islamic State since it launched an offensive against rival rebels in Aleppo near the Turkish border in late August.
“DAESH EXPLOIT RUSSIAN STRIKES”
“Daesh has exploited the Russian air strikes and the preoccupation of the (rebel) Free Syrian Army in its battles in Hama, and advanced in Aleppo,” said one rebel commander with fighters in the region, using an Arabic name for IS.
Russian warplanes and warships have been bombarding targets across Syria in a campaign Moscow says is targeting IS fighters, who control large parts of eastern Syria and of Iraq.
But the campaign, which has dramatically changed the landscape of the war, appears to have mainly struck other rebel groups, some of which had been battling to stop the Islamic State advance across Aleppo province.
U.S. and Russian warplanes are now flying missions over the same country for the first time since World War Two risking incidents between the two air forces and their fast jets.
The United States announced on Friday it would overhaul its failed efforts to support moderate Syrian rebels battling Islamic State, saying it would provide arms and equipment to vetted rebel leaders and their units.
The U.S. announcement marked the effective end to a short-lived multi-million-dollar program to train and equip units of fighters at sites outside Syria, after that program’s disastrous launch this year fanned criticism of President Barack Obama’s war strategy. Future training will be greatly scaled back, with the apparent U.S. focus on providing weaponry.
Seeking to underline the dangers of the Russian operation, U.S. officials said four Russian cruise missiles fired from a warship in the Caspian Sea had crashed in Iran which drew a swift denial from Russia.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said, however, on Friday in London that the United States had indications that Russian cruise missiles did malfunction.
French Rafale warplanes attacked an IS training camp in their stronghold of Raqqa overnight. “We struck because we know that in Syria, particularly around Raqqa, there are training camps for foreign fighters whose mission is not to fight Daesh on the Levant but to come toFrance, in Europe to carry out attacks,” said French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
France launched its first air strike in Syria on September 27, destroying an Islamic State training camp near Deir al-Zor in the east of the country. Le Drian said that Islamic State was France’s “main enemy” and that Russian strikes were mostly hitting Assad’s opponents inSyria and not IS targets.
The Observatory reported a new wave of Russian air strikes in the west on Friday morning on Hama and Idlib, apparently in support of the ground offensive against anti-Assad rebels.
The offensive has focused around the Ghab Plain, next to Syria’s western mountain range which forms the Alawite heartland and the important strategic main north-south highway running north from Hama toward the cities of Idlib and Aleppo.
Securing those areas would help consolidate Assad’s control over Syria’s main population centers in the west of the country, far from the Islamic State strongholds in the east.
Abu al-Baraa, a fighter with the Ajnad al-Sham rebel group, speaking to Reuters via Internet messenger from the Ghab Plain, said: “The regime has been trying since yesterday to advance … and tried many times, with Russian jets paving their way, but … most of the attacks are repelled. Also a number of heavy regime vehicles have been destroyed in the Ghab region.”
Alongside the Russian air-and-sea campaign, regional officials have told Reuters that hundreds of Iranian troops have arrived in Syria since late September to support the Syrian army and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters.
Senior Iranian officials have been in Syria for several years as military advisers, while Moscow has maintained a naval facility in the Syrian Mediterranean port of Tartous which it is using to supply its forces along with a base at Latakia.
The IRGC said a senior general, Hossein Hamedani, was killed near Aleppo late on Thursday. Hamedani was a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war and was made deputy chief commander in 2005. Several senior Guard commanders have been killed in Syria.
The Observatory, which monitors Syria’s conflict through a network of sources in the country, said Hamedani was killed near Kweires air base, about 20 miles (35 km) east of Aleppo. Kweires has been besieged by IS fighters.
Turkey said on Friday it was concerned about a possible fresh wave of Syrian migrants arriving at its border as a result of Russian air strikes. The conflict has killed 250,000 people, causing a refugee crisis in Europe and neighboring nations.
The violation of Turkish air space by two Russian warplanes last weekend brought the Syrian conflict across NATO’s borders, but the government said that, as yet, no Russian delegation had been sent to Ankara to provide information on the incursions.