Syria ground offensive will follow Russian strikes - source

2015-10-05 22:01
Russian military support crew attach a satellite guided bomb to SU-34 jet fighter at Hmeimim airbase in Syria. (AP)

Russian military support crew attach a satellite guided bomb to SU-34 jet fighter at Hmeimim airbase in Syria. (AP)

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Beirut - The Syrian government and its allies are preparing for a ground offensive on rebel-held territory targeted in recent Russian air strikes, a source close to a coalition led by the Lebanese Shi'ite movement Hezbollah told dpa on Monday.

Thousands of fighters from Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, as well as the Syrian army and allied militias, have been mobilised for the assault on the rebel-held pocket north of the central city of Homs, the source, who declined to be quoted by name, said.

Any ground offensive in the area is likely to further anger Western and Arab backers of the Syrian rebels, who have already denounced what they said were Russian air strikes against non-Islamic State (ISIS) targets in the area.

Russia said its air campaign, which began on Wednesday, was targeting ISIS positions and was being carried out at the invitation of Syrian President Bashar Assad's government.

But ISIS, which controls much of eastern Syria and parts of the north of the country, was not thought to be present in the north Homs pocket.

The area, one of the earliest opposition strongholds in Syria's four-year civil war, is controlled by a range of rebel groups including al-Qaeda affiliate the al-Nusra Front.

A military advisor to the opposition Free Syrian Army, a loose coalition of moderate rebel groups, on Friday told dpa that Hezbollah and Iranian forces were massing in the area in preparation of a ground assault.

"The Russian strikes are focusing... in the northern Homs region in a prelude for the ground attack which is due to take place when the zero hour is announced," the source close to Hezbollah's coalition said.

Russian planes hit ISIS

One of Syria's largest rebel groups, the hardline Islamist Ahrar al-Sham, meanwhile released a statement denouncing Russian "occupation" of Syria and saying that "any occupying forces are a legitimate target for us".

Analyst Emile Hokayem of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies last week said that the Russian campaign was primarily targeting "mainstream rebels" who threatened the Assad regime.

Forces loyal to the Syrian government, Russia's closest ally in the region, have been worn down by the conflict and this year lost significant territory in Idlib province, north and north-west of Homs, to the resurgent rebels.

Also on Monday, a pro-opposition monitoring group said that planes believed to be Russian hit ISIS depots in the group's north-eastern stronghold, al-Raqqa.

Warplanes believed to be Russian also struck the town of al-Bab, in northern Aleppo province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Activists based close to the area said the strike killed at least ten people and wounded several others.

Syrian television, quoting a military source, said Russian planes hit several targets outside Homs and "terrorist" positions in Idlib. 

The Syrian conflict, which began in 2011 with peaceful opposition demonstrations, has spiralled into a multi-sided war between the government, mainly Islamist rebels, Islamic State, and Kurdish forces.

Western states, Gulf countries and Turkey have provided varying levels of support to the opposition, while Iran and Russia have backed al-Assad.

Read more on:    russia  |  syria

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