Syrian troops enter rebel held southern town
BEIRUT: Syrian troops fought their way into a rebel-held town in the southern province of Deraa on Wednesday in an assault which rebels said was supported by the heaviest Russian aerial bombing campaign so far in the south.
Troops were in Sheikh Maskin’s main square and had taken over the eastern and northern neighbourhoods of the town which lies on a major supply route from the Syrian capital, Damascus, to the city of Deraa, the army said.
A rebel source confirmed troops had entered parts of the town and said fierce clashes were raging in the eastern neighbourhood known as the Masaken — an area of dozens of apartment buildings that formerly housed top army officers.
A commander in a leading rebel group fighting in the area said the heavy Russian bombing on their posts, where rebels had counted at least 100 raids in the past two days, had been decisive in tipping the balance against the rebels.
“This is the heaviest Russian bombing on the side of the regime in Deraa and without it the army, which faces manpower shortages, would not have made these gains,” said one commander from Jabhat Thuwwar Souria, a group involved in the fighting.
Rebels from an array of groups — some of them backed by Western powers and including the militant Muthana group — fought back against the offensive near a former air base north of the town of Sheikh Maskin, insurgents on the ground said.
The army assault on Sheikh Maskin is part of the government’s first major offensive in southern Syria since Russia joined the fight on Sept.
30 to support its ally President Bashar al-Assad.
Its recapture would consolidate the army’s hold over the heavily fortified region which has formed a southern line of defence protecting Damascus.
Russia, which did not confirm the strikes and has up to now concentrated on the coastal areas, has said it is primarily targeting hardline IS fighters.— Reuters