BEIRUT • Russian war planes pounded Syrian rebels unaffiliated with Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) yesterday, helping Moscow's ally, President Bashar al-Assad, reclaim territory and dealing a fresh setback to the strategy of Washington and its allies.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group that monitors the four-year-old conflict, said the Syrian military and its Lebanese Hizbollah militia allies had taken control of Tal Skik, a highland area in Idlib province, after fierce Russian bombing.
That brings Syrian government forces closer to insurgent-held positions along the main highway that links Syria's principal cities.
JOIN FORCES INSTEAD
The simplest solution for them would be to join us and, in that way, legalise their actions on Syrian territory.
RUSSIAN PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, on the US, in an interview with state-run TV channel Rossiya 1 broadcast yesterday. He said Russia's involvement was legal and reasonable because it followed a Syrian request for help. He questioned whether the US had lived up to those standards.
The area is held by a rebel alliance that excludes ISIS fighters.
"The coming battles are going to be ferocious. The Russians are using a scorched earth policy and they are hitting the targets very accurately, but this is a battle of destiny," said Mr Abu Hamed, head of the military bureau of Jabhat Sham, an insurgent group that operates mainly in Hama province.
"We are fighting for our very existence and so this is why our fighters are exhibiting heroism and fighting for our beliefs against the Russian occupiers," he said.
The Syrian army had made advances from the towns of Mourek and Atshan in Hama province using tanks, heavy artillery and new surface-to-surface missiles, he said.
However, the advance came at a cost, with the Observatory and a Lebanese television station reporting that a senior Hizbollah commander was killed in the battle while fighting on the Syrian government's behalf.
In another setback for the regime, Iran has confirmed that the commander of Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, General Hossein Hamadani, was killed by ISIS in Syria last Thursday. He was serving in Syria as both an adviser to the Syrian government and as an overseer for operations of the pro-Syrian army forces.
Russia's intervention has angered Mr Assad's regional foes, including most Arab countries and Turkey.
In his biggest effort yet to reach out to Mr Assad's Arab foes, Russian President Vladimir Putin met Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who holds a senior post in the armed forces of the United Arab Emirates.
At the meeting on the sidelines of a Formula One motor race in Russia's Sochi resort, Mr Putin said he welcomed the opportunity to discuss security in the region, particularly in the light of bombings on Saturday that killed up to 128 people in Turkey.
He also met Saudi Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman.
Meanwhile, Washington and Moscow have sought talks on ways to avoid military accidents in Syria's increasingly crowded airspace.
On Saturday, Washington said the two countries had made "progress" in the talks and that more discussions were planned.
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook disclosed few details, except to say that the discussions took place between United States defence officials and their counterparts in Moscow and focused on "steps that can be taken" by Russian and US-led coalition aircraft "to promote safe flight operations over Syria".
In another development, the Iraqi air force struck a convoy it believed was ferrying ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in western Anbar province close to the Syrian border yesterday, a military statement said. Hospital sources, however, said that while the air strike did kill other ISIS leaders, Baghdadi was not among them.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE