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Syrian Government Forces Reportedly Gearing Up for Ground Offensive

FILE - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, center, speaks with Syrian troops during his visit to the front line in the eastern Damascus district of Jobar, Dec. 31, 2014.
FILE - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, center, speaks with Syrian troops during his visit to the front line in the eastern Damascus district of Jobar, Dec. 31, 2014.

Members of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group called on Russia Friday to stop its airstrikes in Syria, saying they were hitting a variety of rebel militias and civilians and would only fuel extremist groups.

The call came as Syrian rebels warned that the strikes were executed in preparation for forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad to launch a major ground offensive in northwest Syria.

Rebel commanders said they were alarmed at the buildup of the Syrian government’s regular and irregular forces in Hama province.

They said they suspected that government forces would soon unleash an offensive supported by Russian jet fighters in the strategic al-Ghab Plain in a bid to roll back insurgents, who have made recent gains in Hama. Russian special forces officers are now overseeing the Syrian army’s Brigade 87, which is deployed in the Hama countryside and is being reinforced daily, the rebels said.

Rebel commanders told VOA the Assad government was redeploying troops from the military airport at Hama toward al-Ghab Plain, along with tanks and armored vehicles.

Newspaper's report

The rebel suspicions of a ground offensive dovetail with claims by a newspaper affiliated with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia movement whose fighters are active in Syria in support of the Assad regime. The paper reported that Russia’s air campaign was a prelude to a larger military offensive involving the Syrian Army, Hezbollah and Shia fighters from Iran.

If that is correct, it would suggest that the Russian military operation — its first beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union since Afghanistan in 1979 — was long in the planning.

In a joint statement Friday, the U.S., U.K., Turkey and Saudi Arabia dubbed Russia’s intervention a serious escalation in the four-year-long Syrian civil war, in which 250,000 people have died. They warned that Moscow’s involvement would “only fuel more extremism.”

The warning from members of the U.S.-led coalition came just ahead of a scheduled meeting between the French and Russian presidents. Before the meeting, French President Francois Hollande, using an Arabic acronym for IS, said it was important that "the strikes, regardless of who is carrying them out, target Daesh and not other groups.”

Russian warplanes began their air campaign Wednesday and launched 30 strikes Thursday, mostly in the northwest Syrian province of Homs. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a dozen jihadists were killed when Russian jets struck in the province of Raqqa. The Russian Defense Ministry confirmed the strike.

Friday's attacks

Moscow reported 18 fresh strikes Friday, hitting what were described as IS targets, including a command post and a communications center in Aleppo province and a field camp in Idlib. The Russian Defense Ministry said a command post in Hama province was also destroyed.

Russia said its air campaign could last three to four months. Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Russia's parliament, dismissed the U.S.-led coalition’s year of airstrikes on IS as ineffective and said Russia's campaign would have more results.

While Russian officials have maintained that their intervention in Syria is targeting IS fighters, the Kremlin has acknowledged it is also taking aim at "a list" of militias aside from the jihadist group. "These organizations are well-known and the targets are chosen in coordination with the armed forces of Syria,” said Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Like the Syrian government, Moscow describes all militias battling to topple Assad as “terrorists.”

But political activists and Syrian rebel commanders said most areas being hit in the Russian air campaign were not held by IS fighters, prompting accusations that the Russian intervention is more about buttressing the Assad regime, Moscow's longtime ally. U.S. officials are saying the same. On Thursday, Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steven Warren told reporters in Washington: “We don’t believe that [Russia] struck [IS] targets. So that is a problem.”

Army of Conquest

Most of the Russian airstrikes appear to be focused on militias aligned with Jaysh al-Fateh, the Army of Conquest, which overran a large swath of northwest Syria this spring, ousting Assad forces from Idlib province. From Idlib, the Islamist-dominated Army of Conquest has been swinging between pushing into the government’s coastal stronghold of Latakia and into al-Ghab Plain for a redoubled effort south toward Hama and the city of Homs, referred to by many rebels as “the capital of the revolution.”

The spring and summer victories of the Army of Conquest, which is backed by al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, prompted a surge of confidence in rebel ranks. Taking the war deeper into government strongholds would give them the opportunity to threaten the Syrian capital and coordinate more with rebel militias in the suburbs of Damascus.

Regional analysts and rebel commanders saw the shift as a new phase, one presenting the chance of cutting off the coastal provinces from the center of Syria and the capital. The Russian intervention upsets that dynamic.

The list of militias reporting they have been struck by Russian warplanes so far includes not only Army of Conquest-aligned brigades but also Western-favored Free Syrian Army groups such as Tajammu al-Aaza, which has received CIA training and U.S. arms supplies; the Homs Liberation Movement; the Southern Front, also backed by the U.S. and Jordan; and Liwa Suqour al-Jabal.