The Syrian army said its troops entered a rebel-held town in the southern province of Deraa on Wednesday in an assault which rebels say was aided by the heaviest Russian aerial bombing campaign so far in the south.
Troops were in Sheikh Maskin’s main square and had taken over the eastern and northern neighbourhoods of the town that lies on a major supply route from Syria’s capital Damascus to the city of Deraa, the army said in a statement.
A rebel source confirmed that troops had entered the outskirts of the town but said fierce clashes continued.
Rebels from an array of groups – some of them backed by Western powers – fought back against the offensive near a former air base north of the town of Sheikh Maskin, terrorists at the scene told Reuters.
The army offensive towards Sheikh Maskin is part of the government’s first major assault in southern Syria since Russia joined the fight on Sept. 30 to support its ally President Bashar al-Assad.
Russia, which did not confirm the strikes and has up until now concentrated on the northwest and coastal areas, has said it is primarily targeting hard-line Islamic State terrorists.
Washington and other regional powers have regularly accused Russia of striking other anti-Assad rebel groups, seen as more moderate. Some in the West hope these groups will form part of a future settlement of the nearly five-year war.
The army took the Brigade 82 base from the rebels on Tuesday, lost it as bad weather set in, then took it once more overnight with the support of the air strikes, said rebels.
Syria’s army said it had made advances overnight against terrorists it said were mainly al-Qaida-inspired groups.
Sheikh Maskin, 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 recapture of Sheikh Maskin, located at the heart of the Deraa province, would consolidate the army’s hold over the heavily fortified region which has formed a southern line of defense protecting Damascus.
Rebels from another mainstream anti-Assad armed opposition alongside some Islamist groups said they shelled army posts in the city of Izraa, a main government-held town that has major fortifications and is located to the east of Sheikh Maskin.
Activists and residents 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 a lesser height.