BEIRUT/MOSCOW/ANKARA: Backed by huge Russian support, the Syrian army captured the Dahiyet Assad district of western Aleppo on Saturday, reversing all the gains made by rebels two weeks into their counter-attack against government-held areas, a war monitor and rebel official said.
In a related development, a flotilla of Russian warships is ready in the eastern Mediterranean off the Syrian coast after being sent to reinforce Russia’s military in the area, a naval commander said on state television.
State television said the army swept the suburban area for land mines after regaining full control.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based war monitor, said the army and its allies made several advances on the divided city’s western edge this week, hampering the rebel offensive to break the siege on opposition-held districts.
Syrian government forces took Minian village and nearby positions, which were captured by rebels last month, the Observatory said.
Zakaria Malahifji, head of the political office of the Fastaqim rebel group fighting in Aleppo, confirmed the army’s advances.
“Of course, when the regime takes control, it has a negative effect, but there is persistence” among the factions, he said. “And hopefully there will be change in the coming days.”
Syrian government forces launched a major Russian-backed assault on eastern Aleppo in September after besieging the area, which the United Nations says is home to 275,000 people.
Russian warship flotilla
The commander of Russia’s flagship Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier, Sergei Artamonov, said via videolink that the warships are now in the “designated zone… in the eastern Mediterranean” and “are now jointly carrying out tasks, manoeuvering to the west of the Syrian coast.”
The battle group has traveled to Syria from the North Sea through the English Channel in the biggest such naval deployment in recent years as part of Russia’s military intervention in Syria.
Russia has been flying a bombing campaign in Syria for the past year in support of President Bashar Assad and has deployed a naval contingent to back up its operation.
The naval task force has been monitored closely by NATO, whose chief Jens Stoltenberg voiced concern the ships would be used to support the Russian military operation in Syria and “increase human and civilian suffering.” The ship’s commander was speaking to a presenter on Russia-1 television from inside the Defense Ministry for a news show that will air this evening in Moscow.
He confirmed that aircraft are already taking off from the ship’s deck to view the conflict zone.
“The flights have been going on practically every day for the last four days,” he added.
Russia’s Interfax news agency on Friday had cited a Russian military and diplomatic source as saying that Russian MiG and Sukhoi jets have been regularly flying into Syrian airspace from the Kuznetsov to “determine combat missions.” The Russian television channel also spoke to the commander of the Pyotr Veliky nuclear-powered battle cruiser, which is part of the same flotilla.
Asked whether foreign aircraft were flying over the ships, the commander, Vladislav Malakhovsky, said “they are afraid to come closer than 50 kms away, realizing very well how powerful the nuclear cruiser is.”
The Russian Defense Ministry said on Saturday it would need the UN mission in Syria to formally confirm its ability to deliver aid to eastern Aleppo before Moscow agreed to any new humanitarian pauses in fighting in the shattered Syrian city.
Moscow says previous temporary cease-fires on the ground, called to allow aid deliveries and the evacuation of the wounded and civilians, have come to nothing because rebels have opened fire on anyone trying to come in or out.
Rebels contest that and say it is the Syrian army and its allies who have sabotaged the humanitarian pauses.
Turkish airstrikes kill 18 ISIS men
Meanwhile, Turkey’s military said it has killed 18 Daesh militants in northern Syria over the last 24 hours, intensifying strikes against the militant group.
Four buildings and one vehicle used by the ISIS fighters were destroyed in the strikes, an army statement said. Separately, five Turkey-backed rebels and five ISIS militants were killed in clashes on the ground, the army said in its statement.
Turkey is backing a group of Syrian Arabs and Turkmen in northern Syria in its Euphrates Shield operation, which has swept ISIS from its southern border.
The hard-line Sunni group claimed responsibility for a car bomb attack in the Turkish southeastern city of Diyarbakir that killed 11 last week.