Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 7 December 2019

Syrian rebels say Russia has sent special forces to Idlib

Russia has denied contributing fighters to a stalled Syrian government offensive

A member of a fire crew sprays water onto a damaged building in a market after an air strike in this screen grab taken from a social media video said to be taken in Idlib, Syria on July 16, 2019. White Helmets
A member of a fire crew sprays water onto a damaged building in a market after an air strike in this screen grab taken from a social media video said to be taken in Idlib, Syria on July 16, 2019. White Helmets

Russia has sent elite troops to help Syrian President Bashar Al Assad take back the last opposition stronghold in northern Idlib, rebel commanders say.

It has been four years since Russia sent in air power for an intensive bombing campaign that turned the war in the Assad regime's favour, but Moscow has denied any intention of sending in troops.

The rebels say that the Russian special forces are now taking an active role in combat, not just directing fighting from behind front lines and providing sniper or artillery fire.

"These special Russian forces are now present in the battlefield. The Russians are intervening directly now," said Naji Mustafa, spokesman for the Turkey-backed National Liberation Front coalition of rebel factions.

The Russian Defence Ministry has denied the claim.

Russia entered the Syrian war in late 2015 with a series of air strikes its Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, said would be aimed at ISIS.

Instead, the brutal air campaign cut through the ranks of moderate opposition groups and militants.

After Russia’s long and costly wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya, President Vladimir Putin has sought to ease public concerns over another long military intervention by using small detachments of troops behind front lines.

But the conflict has also been a vital training ground for the Russian military, with more than 60,000 personnel gaining experience in Syria since September 2015.

The most recent reinforcements come several months into a stalled government offensive to wrest back Syria’s last stronghold of opposition.

About three million people are in the north-west province, which is controlled by Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, an Al Qaeda affiliate previously known as Jabhat Al Nusra.

The offensive launched in April by Syrian and Russian forces has displaced hundreds of thousands of residents and damaged or destroyed dozens of schools and hospitals.

The UN has urged all parties to uphold international humanitarian law and protect civilians. Human Rights Watch has called on governments to hold Russia and Syria to account for “dangerous disregard for the lives of Syrians".

But Mr Al Assad has little to show for two months of fighting. Russian troops reportedly entered the offensive to retake the strategic Humaymat hilltops in northern Hama after Syrian forces failed to make headway.

"When Al Assad's forces failed to advance, Russia then intervened directly after bombing the area with more than 200 sorties," Mr Mustafa told Reuters.

The stalled offensive in Idlib is rare example since 2015 of a military offensive that has not gone Russia’s way.

As early as May, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov voiced frustration over repeated drone attacks on Russia’s Khmeimim airbase in Latakia province.

"The Syrian army found itself in a crisis and were forced to ask for Russian troops on the battlefield," said Jamil Al Saleh, head of Jaish Al Izza rebel group.

Another rebel commander said that Iranian-backed militias fighting alongside the Syrian regime had also entered the battle.

"The Iranians have brought reinforcements and are now fighting on several fronts," said Mohammad Rashid, a spokesman for the Turkey-backed Jaish Al Nasr rebel group.

Mr Putin, alongside Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erodgan and Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani, has worked with the Syrian regime to broker a political agreement that would bring about an end to the conflict.

But Mr Putin and Mr Al Assad have grown increasingly impatient to win the final offensive on Idlib, the last rebel held province other than those controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, which maintain an uneasy understanding with Damascus.

But Mr Erdogan is concerned that a full-scale attack will force millions of Syrians fleeing the fighting over his southern border, exacerbating Turkey’s strained efforts to host more than three million Syrian refugees.

Updated: July 19, 2019 04:14 AM