Russia has been bombing targets in Syria for over a month — an intervention in the country’s four-and-a-half-year civil war that the Kremlin insists will boost the capability of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to fight the radical Islamic State (IS) insurgency.
The militant group seems to keep gaining ground, however.
On Sunday, IS seized Maheem, a predominantly Christian town in the Homs province, killing 50 government fighters.
The assault began with a devastating twin suicide-car bombing, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Shortly after taking the town, IS boasted of the conquest in an official statement that described the town as “strategically important.” The group noted that along with the capture came valuable weapons caches.
The advance brings IS within 13 miles of a pivotal north-south highway that links Damascus to Syria’s other main cities: Homs, Hama, and Aleppo.
Despite Russia’s rhetoric, most of the recent attacks by the Syrian army, which is backed by Russian airstrikes and allied fighters from Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, have focused on other rebel groups rather than IS.
The Syrian Observatory’s Rami Abdulrahman told Reuters that the the attack against Maheem might have been a response to pressure from the US and its allies on IS elsewhere in the country. In the northeastern province of Hasaka on the other side of Syria, IS is facing a new offensive launched by a recently formed US-backed rebel alliance.
On Sunday, the Syrian Observatory reported fierce fighting between that rebel alliance — which includes the Kurdish YPG militia — and IS fighters in the area of al-Houl near the Iraqi border.
Meanwhile, airstrikes carried out over the weekend by Turkish and US aircraft in Syria killed more than 50 IS militants, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency reported.
The strikes come after the US announced last week that it would step up the fight against the group by stationing station special forces in Syria. Representatives from world leaders are now convening in Vienna to work toward peace, while rival groups on the ground trade barbs.
Syria’s military blames the continuing conflict on foreign assistance for the rebels.
“The battle is still a long one. All the time support does not stop to the terrorists from regional states, at the forefront of them Saudi Arabia and Turkey,” a Syrian military official said. The Syrian government refers to all rebels fighting it as terrorists.
The rebels factions are saying essentially the same of the foreign assistance Assad’s forces have been receiving.
“If Russian-Iranian stubbornness continues, the situation will head toward escalation,” remarked Bashar al-Zoubi, head of the political office of the Yarmouk Army, a rebel group operating under the banner of the moderate Free Syrian Army.