BEIRUT: Russia said Thursday its warplanes had eased back on air strikes in Syria as regime forces press a widening ground offensive, while President Vladimir Putin criticized Washington for not cooperating over the conflict.
As Moscow and Washington neared agreement on measures to avoid confrontation over Syria, Russia announced that a hotline had been set up with Israel to ensure there would be no clashes between their air forces.
Russia launched 32 attacks on “terrorist” targets over the past 24 hours, the defense ministry said Thursday afternoon, compared with some 86 the previous day.
“The intensity of the sorties . . . has slightly decreased in the past day,” because “the front line with the terrorist groups of ISIL (Islamic State group) is changing as a result of active offensives by the Syrian armed forces,” a statement said.
The latest strikes targeted Damascus, Idlib, Hama, Deir Ezzor, and Aleppo provinces.
“The militants are retreating, trying to set up new positions and change the logistic system providing them with ammunition, weaponry and materials,” the ministry said.
Syrian television, citing a military source, said the army had begun an operation in the north and northwest of Homs province “with the goal of restoring security and stability to the villages and towns in the area.”
It said its forces had taken control of one village north of the city.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, reported at least 10 people, six of them rebels, had been killed in a barrage of Russian air strikes in the area.
‘Russian intervention will not save Bashar’
The Homs offensive is the latest joint operation since Moscow began its aerial campaign on September 30.
The fighting appears intended to secure the main highway that leads from Homs to neighboring Hama’s provincial capital Hama city.
The cities are almost totally controlled by the government, but moderates, Islamists and Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front hold territory in between.
On Thursday, state television said loyalists had seized two small villages in northern Hama, extending their push towards Idlib, which is controlled by a rebel alliance known as the Army of Conquest.
The advances have come with the support of a Russian air campaign Moscow says is targeting IS and others it describes as “terrorists.”
But rebels and their international backers say the intervention is intended to bolster President Bashar al-Assad and has targeted moderate and Islamist opposition forces rather than jihadists.
French President Francois Hollande said Friday Russian intervention would not save Bashar after an EU summit called for a political transition to a new leader.
“Russia’s intervention from this point of view can bolster the regime but will not save Bashar,” Hollande told a press conference in Brussels.
Russia’s entry into the conflict has raised fears of a potential confrontation with the US-led coalition that began air strikes against IS in Syria and Iraq more than a year ago.
Washington this week rebuffed Moscow’s suggestion of broader talks on Syria, prompting criticism from Putin on Thursday.
“I believe this is an unconstructive position,” he said during a visit to Kazakhstan.
“It looks like they have nothing to talk about.”
However, the Russian defense ministry said an “information-sharing” mechanism had been established through a hotline between the Russian command center in Syria and a command post of the Israeli air force.
US ready to boost supply drops
A US official said the Pentagon was poised to boost its supply runs to rebels who can prove they are fighting IS jihadists in northern Syria.
“As they demonstrate results, the packages will get heavier and US strikes will occur in places that are advantageous to their operations,” the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP Thursday.
Meanwhile, a senior official in key regional Syrian ally Iran said Tehran would consider sending fighters to aid Damascus if they were requested.
“If Syria makes a request, we will study the request and make a decision,” said Alaedin Boroujerdi, chairman of parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia, two of Assad’s fiercest opponents, warned Russia of the consequences of its foray into the conflict.
“Russia is making a big mistake,” Turkish Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioglu told reporters after talks Thursday in Ankara with Saudi counterpart Adel al-Jubeir.
“What it does will bring no meaning or benefit, other than delaying the transition process to help Syria out of the chaos,” he added.
Turkey said earlier this month that Russian aircraft operating in Syria twice violated the air space of the key NATO member.
More than 245,000 people have been killed in Syria since March 2011, and more than four million have fled their country.
Central Asians back Moscow
Leaders from the largely-Muslim former Soviet republics in Central Asia — already dependent on Russia to help shore up their vulnerable southern frontier with conflict-wracked Afghanistan — have had little choice but to largely back Moscow’s bombing campaign in Syria that the Kremlin says is aimed at IS.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin sits down with ex-Soviet leaders at a summit in Kazakhstan on Friday, the fight against terrorism and regional security are set to top the bill.
“If these were stronger states without serious social fractures, maybe we would not be talking about a major threat from Syria or Afghanistan,” said Vasily Kashin, an analyst at the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.
“The fact is if any full-blown crisis were to engulf the region it would demand intervention from stronger neighboring countries, foremostly Russia,” Kashin told AFP.
According to the International Crisis Group, between 2,000 and 4,000 militants from Central Asia may be fighting under the banner of IS.
Regional militaries are mostly ill-equipped to handle any potential spillover from Afghanistan where IS militants are also seeking to firm up their foothold amid a new outburst of violence.
Russia, which has military bases in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, is a regular source of military assistance for the region and has recently bulked up its presence.
“The Syria conflict is perhaps something of an intangible for the Central Asian states, but what is happening in Afghanistan is a real concern for them,” said Raffaello Pantucci of the London-based Royal United Services Institute.
“This is where they would need Russia onside,” he told AFP.