Syria army begins offensive near Aleppo with Russian support
Syrian troops backed by Russian airpower and allied militias opened a new front Friday against rebels around second city Aleppo, where Washington claimed up to 2,000 Iran-backed forces were deployed.
The offensive came as Turkey said it had downed a drone of unknown origin that violated its air space close to the Syrian border, and a monitor said the toll in the conflict had risen to more than 250,000 people.
The Aleppo offensive is the fourth that President Bashar al-Assad's regime has launched since Moscow began an air campaign on September 30.
Control of Aleppo city, once the country's economic hub, has been divided between the regime and rebels since mid-2012. There and in the surrounding countryside the front lines have long been static.
A security source said the operation in southern Aleppo province was backed by Russian strikes and fighters from Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah militia.
And a US official said as many as 2,000 Iranian and Iran-backed forces were aiding the offensive.
"We are now seeing a coordinated effort between Iran and Russia to assist Assad with fighting opposition groups," the official said.
The joint command for the Aleppo operation said the army had begun operations on the western and southern outskirts of Aleppo "to liberate you from the armed terrorist groups."
- 'Dozens' of Russian strikes -
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the regime had taken control of two villages so far, and that Russian warplanes were pounding two others.
Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said Russia had carried out dozens of strikes on the area, which is controlled by a patchwork of rebel groups, including moderates, Islamists and Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front.
The Aleppo fighting comes a day after government forces began an operation north of Homs city, which lies in the centre of the country and is largely under government control.
State media said the operation was intended to restore "safety and security" to the area and would not target civilians.
But the Observatory said all but 17 of the 60 people killed in the fighting Thursday were civilians.
Since Syrian forces began ground operations in tandem with Russian air strikes on October 7, their focus has appeared to be a stretch of highway between Aleppo and Homs.
Syrian forces have also sought to reinforce the coastal province of Latakia, a regime stronghold, fighting rebels in the north of the province.
Moscow says its strikes have targeted the Islamic State group and other "terrorists."
It said Friday it had hit more than 456 IS targets in Syria since the start of its campaign.
But rebels and their backers accuse Russia of targeting moderate and Islamist opposition forces rather than IS.
US President Barack Obama warned Russia Friday they could not "bomb their way" to a peaceful solution in Syria.
"Their basic theory on how to solve Syria has not worked and will not work," Obama told a press conference with visiting South Korean President Park Geun-Hye.
- Turkey downs unidentified drone -
Russia's entry into the conflict has raised concerns about military accidents in Syria's crowded air space, where a US-led coalition against IS is also present.
On Friday, Turkey said it had shot down an unidentified drone that had violated its airspace near the Syrian border.
Russia said all its planes in Syria were safe and its drones "working as normal."
But the US military said "all indications" were that the Turks had downed a Russian drone, adding that the Syrian army did not appear to use the same type of aircraft.
Turkey has previously shot down Syrian government helicopters and a plane, and has accused Russia of violating its airspace in recent weeks.
The Syrian conflict began with anti-government protests in March 2011 but has since spiralled into a multi-front civil war involving the regime and its allies, the rival jihadists of IS and Al-Qaeda, and Kurdish militia as well as a string of rebel groups.
The Observatory said on Friday that the death toll was now more than a quarter of a million, over 74,000 of them civilians.
And the UN's humanitarian chief Stephen O'Brien told AFP that the increasing air strikes on the country were putting aid supply routes at risk.
That "has meant that we have been unable to have as many convoys moving to get the supplies to the people in need," he told AFP in an interview.
© 2015 AFP