Islamic World

Syria regime advances in northwest ahead of peace talks

Syria regime advances in northwest ahead of peace talks
Members of the Syrian pro-government forces rest in the strategic town of Salma, in the coastal Latakia province, on January 15, 2016, following its recapture from rebel fighters. Russia began air strikes last September aiding the Syrian regime in the recapture of territory such as the town of Salma, that became a rebel stronghold after its 2012 capture. Simultaneously, the army is seeking to encircle the city of Aleppo, advance in the south of central Hama province and east in Homs, and is on the offensive in the key rebel town of Sheikh Miskeen in southern Daraa province. / AFP / YOUSSEF KARWASHAN

Beirut: Pro-government forces overran the last major rebel-held town in Syria’s coastal Latakia province today, as the United Nations prepares to host talks this week on ending the country’s nearly five-year war.

State television said army forces, working with pro- regime militia, had seized control of the town of Rabia after heavy fighting with rebels.

It was the second strategic victory for pro-regime forces in Latakia in less than two weeks, after government troops seized the town of Salma from rebels on January 12.

“In the coming weeks, we will be able to announce that all of Latakia — city and province — is free from armed groups,” a Syrian army commander in Latakia told AFP.

The army would use Rabia as a launching point for ground operations against rebel-held towns to the east in the adjacent Idlib province, he said.

Rabia had been held by the opposition since 2012 and was controlled by a range of rebel groups including some made up of Syrian Turkmen, as well as Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front.

State news agency SANA said government forces were “combing the area to dismantle any explosive devices or mines planted by the terrorists”.

It said many rebels had been killed in the fighting but provided no other details.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rabia fell today after a regime advance that left the town surrounded.

“In the past 48 hours, regime forces surrounded the town from three sides — the south, west, and north — by capturing 20 villages,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

He said senior Russian military officials oversaw the battle and that Russian air strikes “played an essential role” in the fight.

With Rabia’s capture, government troops are closing in on rebel supply routes through the Turkish border to the north, he added.

Armed opposition factions have used northern parts of Latakia province to carry out rocket and bomb attacks on the provincial capital along the coast.

Backed by Russian air power, pro-regime forces are chipping away at that territory in a bid to secure the Assad clan’s heartland.

Rabia “is at the crossroads of supply routes in this region” leading northwest towards the Turkish border and further east to other rebel strongholds, said Syria analyst Fabrice Balanche.

“By controlling this road, the Syrian army can block rebel movements towards the south, towards Latakia, and the rebels will have a hard time getting close and firing missiles at the (coastal) airport,” he added.

Russia’s air force has operated out of the Hmeimim military airport in Latakia province since September 30.

The regime’s latest advance came as world powers intensify efforts to reach a political solution to Syria’s war.