Syrian Army, Backed by Airstrikes, Advances South

BEIRUT (Reuters) -

Syrian troops backed by heavy aerial bombardment, pushed towards a strategic town in the southern province of Deraa on Tuesday after capturing a nearby military base, the army said.

The Syrian army said it retook Brigade 82, one of the largest bases north of the mainly terrorist-held town of Sheikh Maskin, whose capture earlier this year threatened the army’s supply routes to the south. Sheikh Maskin, whose recapture is the main goal of the army’s southern campaign, lies on one of the main supply routes from the capital Damascus to the city of Deraa, close to the border with Jordan.

The army also said, in a news flash on state media, that it had recaptured the Al Hesh hills, northwest of Sheikh Maskin. The hilltop, which was held by the terrorists for about a year, overlooks much of rebel-held western Deraa.

The army offensive at Sheikh Maskin is part of the first major operation in southern Syria since Russia launched air strikes on Sept. 30 to support its ally, President Bashar al-Assad.

Until recently, Russia has focused its bombing on terrorist targets in northwestern Syria and coastal areas, to help the Syrian army claw back territory it lost earlier this year.

The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks violence across Syria, said 17 air raids, believed to have been carried out by Russian planes, hit rebel-held areas in the town to support the ground offensive.

Activists say Russian air strikes, in which missiles and bombs are launched from a high altitude, are distinct from Syrian air force strikes which rely more on untreated barrel bombs dropped from helicopters flying at lower heights. Russian strikes tend to be more concentrated and precise, using several aircraft rather than the one kind frequently deployed by Syria’s military. Residents say Russian munitions also leave deeper craters.

The recapture of Sheikh Maskin, located at the heart of Deraa province, would consolidate the army’s hold over the heavily fortified region which has formed a southern line of defense protecting Damascus.

Rebels still control large parts of the region, that also borders Israel, but have been largely on the defensive since their failed offensive in June to take government-controlled part of Deraa city.

A rebel in Falujat Hauran brigade said rebel groups, including al-Qaida’s Syrian branch, the Nusra Front, were engaged in heavy fighting to prevent the town’s fall.

The south is the last major stronghold of the mainstream, anti-Assad opposition, who have been weakened elsewhere by the expansion of the ultra-hardline IS terror group in the east and north, and gains by the Nusra Front in the northwest.

Non-Nusra rebels in the south receive what they describe as small amounts of military and financial support from Western and Arab states. It has been channeled via Jordan, a U.S. ally that is determined to protect its  border with Syria from jihadists.

North of Damascus on Tuesday, the army reported that it regained control of the town of Maheen, captured by IS last month. Maheen is about 20 km (10 miles) from the highway running north from Damascus to the battered cities of Homs, Hama, and Aleppo.