Unnamed U.S. officials say four Russian missiles aimed at Syria crashed in Iran. Russia has been backing Syria in its military offensive.
Russian military officials said their warplanes destroyed two Islamic State command centers in Syria in the past 24 hours, and their planes also reportedly helped Syrian troops seize a central village Saturday in fierce clashes with anti-government rebels as part of an ongoing ground offensive.
The two claims, while not mutually exclusive, underscore the complicated role Russia is playing with its stepped-up military presence in Syria.
To avoid accidents in the skies over Syria, U.S. defense officials, overseeing their own coalition campaign against Islamic militants, held a long-delayed, 90-minute secure videoconference with Russian counterparts Saturday to discuss steps to “promote safe flight operations over Syria.”
“The discussions were professional and focused narrowly on the implementation of specific safety procedures,” Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said in a statement. Both sides agreed to continue the exchange of information in the near future.
The offensive by Syrian troops marked the first major air-and-ground assault since Moscow began its military campaign in Syria on Sept. 30. Russian officials insisted the airstrikes were targeting mainly Islamic State militants, but most strikes hit areas where the extremist group is not present, according to reports on the ground.
The fighting is concentrated in Hama and the northern Idlib provinces, where a consortium of mainstream rebels opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad are operating along with al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, the Nusra Front.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists across Syria, said government troops seized control of Atshan on Friday amid intense Russian airstrikes in the area. It said troops also seized the nearby Um Hartein village.
The rebels have put up stiff resistance by using advanced, U.S.-made TOW missiles to attack Syrian tanks and armored vehicles.
The Russian defense ministry said its planes flew 64 sorties and targeted 54 sites in the past 24 hours, without elaborating, Russian government-owned ITAR-TASS news agency reports. Among the sites attacked, it said, were militant command outposts in Aleppo and Idlib provinces.
Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, spokesperson for the Russian defense ministry, said Russian aircraft also destroyed 29 field camps of Islamic State militants, along with an ammunition depot in Hama Province.
Konashenkov said the military pinpointed the hidden command center in the mountainous forests of Idlib through satellite images and drone flights. “After analysis of the pictures from the space and after an air reconnaissance by drones, the forces delivered an airstrike,” Konashenkov said.
The general said intelligence intercepts indicated the militants are running out of fuel and ammunition after the Russian bombings. “Some of them are demoralized and are actively leaving the battle zone, moving in eastern and northeastern directions,” he said.
In its support of the besieged Assad, Russia has insisted its airstrikes are targeting the Islamic State group and other terrorists. But U.S. officials said this week that Russia has directed parts of its air campaign against U.S.-backed groups and other moderate opposition groups in a concerted effort to weaken them.
In the latest assaults, the Observatory reported, Russian warplanes on Saturday bombed a headquarters of the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham rebel group in Saraqeb, in Idlib province.
Heavy fighting was also reportedly taking place in the al-Ghab plain in Hama province — a natural barrier between areas controlled by Sunni Muslims and the Alawite sect to which Assad and many of his loyalists belong.
A military official quoted by Syria’s state-run SANA media outlet said Saturday that two F-16s from the U.S.-led coalition violated Syrian airspace and targeted civilian infrastructure in Aleppo. The unnamed official said the strikes destroyed two power plants in the Radwaniyah area east of Aleppo city, causing a blackout.
Syria’s civil war, which has killed more than 250,000 people in the past four years, has displaced half the country’s pre-war population of 23 million people. A U.S.-led coalition has been striking Islamic State targets in Syria for over a year.
The head of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes key rebel backers Saudi Arabia and Qatar, meanwhile said Russia’s intervention could help defeat the Islamic State if it works with other nations battling the extremists.
“I am not downplaying the difficulties. The war against Daesh (Islamic State) and defeating its dangers is possible if the opposing parties against Daesh, among them Russians, work together properly,” GCC Secretary General Abdullatif al-Zayani said at an event in Abu Dhabi, referring to the militants by their Arabic acronym.
The GCC is comprised of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman. Saudi Arabia has denounced the Russian air campaign.
Also speaking at the event in Abu Dhabi Saturday was U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, who is headed to Iran on Sunday. He called on all countries in the region, and the Security Council, to work toward a “credible political transition in Syria.”
“An end to this war is in everybody’s enlightened self-interest. Enough is enough,” he said.
Contributing: The Associated Press.
Read or Share this story: http://usat.ly/1LnG9n1