Syria regime in new offensive as Putin blasts US

Regime forces backed by Russian air strikes pushed an offensive in central Syria on Thursday as President Vladimir Putin slammed Washington for not working with Moscow on the conflict.

Russian warplanes launched at least 15 air strikes to support government troops as they began a new operation just north of the city of Homs, a monitoring group said.

Syrian state television, citing a military source, said the army had begun a military operation in the north and northwest of Homs province “with the goal of restoring security and stability to the villages and towns in the area”.

It said its forces had taken control of one village north of the city.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, reported at least 10 people, six of them rebels, had been killed in a barrage of Russian air strikes in the area.

The Homs offensive is the latest joint operation between Syrian ground forces and Russian warplanes since Moscow began an aerial campaign on September 30.

The latest fighting appears intended to secure the main highway that leads from Homs to neighbouring Hama’s provincial capital Hama city.

The two cities are fully or almost-fully controlled by the Syrian government, but opposition forces including moderates, Islamists and Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, control territory in between.

“The operation will continue until it reaches its goal of securing northern Homs and severing contacts between militants in Hama and militants in Homs,” a military source told AFP.

Syrian troops have in recent days also been pushing a military operation in northern Hama province and the Sahl al-Ghab region between Hama, Latakia and Idlib provinces.

– EU talks on refugees –

On Thursday, Syrian state television said its forces had seized two small villages in northern Hama, extending their push towards Idlib, which is controlled by a rebel alliance known as the Army of Conquest.

The advances have come with the support of a Russian air campaign that Moscow says is targeting the Islamic State group and others it describes as “terrorists”.

But rebels and their international backers say Russia’s intervention is intended to bolster its ally President Bashar al-Assad and has targeted moderate and Islamist opposition forces rather than jihadists.

Russia’s entry into the conflict has raised fears of a potential confrontation with the US-led coalition that began air strikes against IS in Syria and Iraq more than a year ago.

Moscow and Washington have held several rounds of talks on ways to avoid incidents in Syria’s increasingly crowded airspace and a US defence official said Wednesday the two sides were close to a deal.

“We are nearing completion of a memorandum of agreement that would set up procedures to enhance air safety,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It could be signed and implemented in the coming days.”

But the two countries remain poles apart on the broader issue of the Syrian conflict, with Washington insisting Assad must step down and Russia seeking a political solution that would keep him in power.

Washington this week rebuffed Moscow’s suggestion of broader talks on Syria, prompting criticism from Putin on Thursday.

“I believe this is an unconstructive position,” he said on a visit to the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan.

“It looks like they have nothing to talk about.”

More than 245,000 people have been killed in Syria since March 2011, and more than four million Syrians have fled their country.

Most have found refuge in neighbouring nations, but in recent months many Syrians have joined a wave of migrants and refugees seeking asylum in Europe.

European Union leaders were meeting Thursday to discuss the crisis.

The key issue will be efforts to get a reluctant Turkey’s approval for an EU plan to assist it in hosting more than two million refugees.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will head to Turkey on Sunday for talks, and several EU officials arrived in the country on Wednesday to push the plan.


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