By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
BEIRUT (Reuters) – Russia and its Syrian army ally stepped up aerial raids on northwest Syria as they sent reinforcements from elite army units and Iranian-backed militias to bolster a major offensive against the last big rebel stronghold, opposition sources, army defectors and residents said on Friday.
The Russian-led alliance took the town of Khwain, Zarzoor and Tamanah farms in southern Idlib, pushing closer into densely populated parts of Idlib province where millions of people who fled fighting elsewhere in Syria have taken refuge.
They were the first gains since the alliance seized a main rebel pocket in nearby Hama province last week.Jets flying in high altitudes believed to be Russian according to activists who track warplanes dropped bombs on the outskirts of the heavily populated Idlib city, the capital of the province.
Opposition sources say hundreds of troops from the country’s elite Republican Guards, led by President Bashar al Assad’s brother Maher al-Assad that defends the capital Damascus alongside fighters from Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Hezbollah group, were deployed in the frontlines of southern Idlib province.
“There are daily reinforcements coming from the Iranian militias, elite Republican Guards units and Fourth Armoured Division,” Colonel Mustafa Bakour, a commander in Jaish al Izza rebel group, told Reuters.
Moscow’s despatch of ground forces had finally made a breakthrough after months of costly battles that yielded little or nothing for Assad’s side and risked humiliating Moscow, according to Western intelligence sources.
Rebels resistance has been eroded by a relentless aerial campaign against civilian areas since the campaign began late April that has knocked down dozens of hospitals, schools and civil defence centres that has paralysed life in rebel-held areas.
Moscow and Damascus deny they have targeted civilians and say they are responding to militant attacks by the former Nusra Front, a jihadist alliance now known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham that is the dominant force in Idlib.
The new lineup of Russian backed-forces facing a coalition of jihadists and mainstream Turkey-backed rebels has been credited with the rapid progress achieved in the last few weeks, an army defector and two senior opposition sources conceded.
“The Russians have now moved to depending on the Iranians and elite army formations in this campaign,” Bakour added, saying this was a shift away from reliance on the so-called Tiger forces who previously provided most of the Syrian army’s ground troops.
Since capturing the strategic town of Khan Sheikhoun nearly ten days ago, Russian and Syrian jets were now escalating strikes on the city of Maraat al-Numan that lies further north.
At least twelve civilians, including five children were killed during raids overnight on the now ghost city that has seen most of its over 140,000 flee in the last few weeks.
The gains of the last twenty four hours brings the Russian-led alliance closer to capturing the town of Tamaneh, one of dozens of rural villages and towns that have been pummelled in heavy air strikes.
Over half a million civilians have now been uprooted in the course of the offensive that the United Nations say hundreds have been killed and resulted in large scale destruction of civilian areas.
(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Marguerita Choy)