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Syrian-Russian attacks target rebels, but apparently not Islamic State

Syrian-Russian attacks target rebels, but apparently not Islamic State
An image released on Oct. 15, 2015, shows smoke billowing over the small town of Talbiseh near the Syrian city of Homs after airstrikes. (Talbiseh Youtube Channel)

Syrian army troops backed by Russian warplanes launched a ground assault Thursday, targeting rebel positions in central Homs province, according to government and opposition accounts.

The assault is the latest major Syrian ground offensive since Russia commenced airstrikes in support of embattled President Bashar Assad on Sept. 30.

The Russian strikes Thursday appeared to target various rebel factions — including West-backed groups and Al Qaeda-linked insurgents — but not Islamic State, the breakaway Al Qaeda group that Moscow says is its principal target.

Northern Homs province is not regarded as a stronghold of Islamic State. But the area is home to sundry Al Qaeda-connected groups, including Al Nusra Front, the official Al Qaeda franchise in Syria, and Ahrar al Sham, co-founded by an Al Qaeda operative. West-backed factions throughout Syria often collaborate with the Al Qaeda-linked factions.

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Buoyed by Moscow's air campaign, the Syrian military has gone on the offensive. Mixed reports have emerged about the results.

In Moscow, Russian military spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov told journalists Thursday that Syrian opposition forces were "retreating" in the face of the Russian aerial onslaught.

Syrian opposition groups countered that rebels had destroyed four army tanks advancing north of Homs. Last week, a government assault on opposition positions in northern Hama province met stiff resistance and resulted in the loss of numerous tanks, the opposition said.

The Russians, working in coordination with the Syrian army, have been focusing much of their effort on securing major population centers under government control — including Damascus, the capital — and clearing approaches to Syria's Mediterranean coast, a pro-government bastion.

The Homs offensive appears aimed in part at securing the main highway from Damascus, Assad's seat of power, to Aleppo, almost 200 miles to the north. The route goes through Homs province.

Although the city of Homs is largely in government hands, the roadway north has long been cut off and subject to insurgent attacks. The rebel threat has forced convoys to take long detours while ferrying supplies and reinforcements to the government-run sector of Aleppo.

The northern city, once Syria's economic hub, has been divided between loyalist and opposition zones for more than three years. Each side in Aleppo takes turns lobbing shells and firing rockets into the opposing sector, mostly killing civilians, human rights monitors say.

Moscow has said it is primarily targeting Islamic State, which controls vast stretches of territory in Syria and neighboring Iraq.

However, Russia's approach to date has focused on pounding rebel terrain held by other armed opposition groups. Those include Al Qaeda-linked factions and West-backed brigades fighting under the flag of the Free Syrian Army, a loose network with no central command and varying ideologies.

U.S. officials say the strategy is flawed because it strengthens Assad's hand and diminishes the prospect of an eventual negotiated peace to end the Syrian war, now in its fifth year. Washington says Assad's departure from power is essential before any political solution is reached in Syria

Russia argues the opposite: Bolstering Assad's government, Moscow asserts, weakens the "terrorists" and improves the climate for peace talks and eventual elections that will decide who rules Syria.

In the hours before Thursday's offensive began, the Syrian state media reported, Russian warplanes and an "intense preliminary artillery barrage" struck rebel positions north of Homs city.

Advancing Syrian army units then attacked rebel positions in the northern towns of Talbiseh and Teir Malla, the official Syrian news agency reported.

The government accused Al Nusra Front of having committed a "massacre" of civilians north of Homs with the intention of blaming the Russian bombardment for the deaths. Syrian state television gave no death toll.

The Syrian conflict has featured numerous mass killings of civilians. Pro-government and opposition forces have frequently exchanged accusations over the massacres.

The opposition has charged that scores of civilians have died in the Russian bombardment. Moscow has denied the charges, saying it uses precision-guided weapons and avoids hitting areas where civilians are present.

The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, reported Thursday that at least 10 people had been killed in the latest series of Russian airstrikes.

An opposition activist contacted via Skype said that an airstrike on the village of Ghanto, six miles north of Homs, had resulted in at least 15 civilian deaths. A YouTube video uploaded on social media Thursday was said to show images of blackened corpses of people killed in the strike.

On Thursday, Russia said it had conducted 32 airstrikes across Syria in the previous 24 hours.

Among the targets destroyed, Moscow said, was a fortified antiaircraft position east of Damascus, an Islamic State command center in northern Aleppo province, an underground bomb factory in northwest Idlib province and a militant artillery emplacement in northern Hama.

Special correspondent Bulos reported from Amman and Times staff writer McDonnell from Tehran.

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