Syrian government thanks Russia for help capturing key town

A Syrian army soldier rides a motorcycle in the village of Salma, in the northwestern province of Latakia on January 15, 2016.

A Syrian army soldier rides a motorcycle in the village of Salma, in the northwestern province of Latakia on January 15, 2016.

Pictures of Syrian President Bashar Assad hang on nearly every building in the town of Salma, which government troops captured last week in one of their most significant advances since Russia intervened militarily on their side.

The Syrian government offensive has given Assad a stronger hand going into peace talks with the opposition that are planned for next week in Switzerland.

The Russian military on Friday took Moscow-based reporters to see the town in Latakia province, which had been out of government control for more than three years. Most of the buildings bore visible signs of fighting, with holes in concrete walls gaping open and windows blown out.

Government forces were able to capture the city “thanks to the support of the friendly Russian aviation,” Latakia Governor Ibrahim Khder al-Saalem said. “Our army will now press its offensive further.”

Since Russia launched its bombing campaign on Sept. 30, its warplanes have flown nearly 6,000 missions in support of the Syrian government troops. The airstrikes were ostensibly to target ISIS militants and other extremists, but they also have helped Assad push back rebels on several fronts and capture dozens of villages in the north and west.

While Salma had been under rebel control since 2012, the government had continued to hold most of the rest of Latakia province, the heartland of Assad’s minority Alawite sect. Salma, a town of 10,000, sits on hills overlooking the Mediterranean coast, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) away.

The governor said the militants who had held Salma burned 200 hectares (500 acres) of apple orchards and 300 hectares (750 acres) of forest around the city before retreating toward Turkey. The border with Turkey, a key supporter of rebels in the area, is only 12 kilometers (seven miles) away.

On Friday, Syrian troops captured more areas from insurgents in Latakia province, including Kaluksi Mountain and several other villages, according to the state-run SANA news agency.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported heavy clashes in the mountains of Latakia province, saying that the Syrian army and pro-government forces were advancing in the area.

Syria’s five-year civil war has killed a quarter of a million people, displaced half the country and enabled the radical ISIS group to seize a third of Syria’s territory.

The talks planned for next week in Geneva are meant to start a political process to end the conflict, which started in 2011 as a largely peaceful uprising against Assad’s rule but escalated into an all-out war after a harsh state crackdown. The plan calls for cease-fires in parallel to the talks, a new constitution and elections in a year and a half.


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