BEIRUT: At least 18 civilians were killed and 40 wounded in “probably Russian” air strikes on a rebel-held town in northwestern Syria yesterday, a monitoring group said. The strikes hit the Idlib province town of Ariha, which is controlled by the Army of Conquest, a rebel alliance of mainly Islamist groups, including Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Several areas of the town were hit and rescue operations are under way with several critically wounded, the Britain-based group said. The Army of Conquest alliance seized Ariha in May after heavy fighting with regime forces.
A longtime ally of Damascus, Moscow escalated its support to President Bashar Al-Assad on September 30 with an air campaign aimed at bolstering regime positions and backing ground operations by Syrian government troops. Moscow says it targets the Islamic State group and other “terrorists”, but critics accuse it of targeting moderate and Islamist rebel fighters more than IS. Syria’s neighbors have charged that Russian planes have strayed into their airspace on multiple occasions during the campaign.
Russia carried out heavy raids in northern Syria this week after Turkey downed one of its jets in the area. Turkey claims the warplane strayed into its airspace and ignored repeated warnings to change course, but Russia has insisted it did not cross the border. The incident has led to a sharp deterioration of relations between Ankara and its largest energy supplier. The pilot of the Russian plane was shot dead by rebels as he parachuted down after ejecting, but his navigator was rescued by Russian and Syrian special forces.
The pilot’s body is to be handed over to a Russian representative after being retrieved from Syria, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Sunday. A Russian warplane recently entered Israeli-controlled airspace from Syria but the intrusion was resolved without incident, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said yesterday. In early November, apparent Russian air strikes killed at least 11 civilians in two towns in Idlib province, the Observatory said. More than 250,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011.
Meanwhile, Assad told a senior Iranian official yesterday that his adversaries had increased weapon supplies and financial support to insurgents since the start of a major offensive aided by his allies to regain lost territory. Assad was quoted by state media as telling Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, that the military support his country was getting from Iran and Russia had pushed the enemy states he did not name to “further escalate and increase financing and equipping of terrorists”.
The Syrian army said on Saturday that Turkey had increased supplies of weapons, ammunition and equipment to what it described as terrorists in Syria. The senior Iranian official was quoted as saying that his country would continue to support Syria as the war “against terror was a decisive one for the region and the world”. Assad said the defeat of rebel groups fighting to topple his rule was a prerequisite for the “success of any political solution decided by Syrians”.
A Syrian military source told Reuters last week rebels were making heavy use of US-made anti-tank missiles paid for by Saudi Arabia and supplied via Turkey and the weapons were having an impact on the battlefield. The so-called TOW missile is the most potent weapon in the arsenal of rebel groups and has been seen in action more frequently since Russia intervened with air strikes on Syria on Sept 30. – Agencies