On eve of peace talks, Syrian forces make fresh gains against rebels
By PATRICK J. MCDONNELL AND NABIH BULOS | Los Angeles Times (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 25, 2016
BEIRUT — Syrian army troops have overrun rebel strongholds in the mountains of western Latakia province, according to government and opposition accounts on Sunday, marking the latest government gains before peace talks slated to begin this week in Geneva.
Forces loyal to President Bashar Assad swept through the town of Rabiaa and nearby villages close to the Turkish border, according to the official Syrian media and a pro-opposition monitoring group.
The army advanced “after violent clashes against Islamic battalions” including a-Qaida-affiliated Jabat al Nusrah, reported the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition monitor based in Britain. Syrian and Russian warplanes backed the thrust, the observatory said.
Since Sept. 30, when Moscow began its aerial combat operations in Syria, Russian warplanes have flown more than 5,600 missions in support of Assad’s government, according to the Russian Defense Ministry. The Russian intervention has helped turn the tide of battle on several fronts, including Latakia, boosting the fortunes of Assad’s government as United Nations-peace talks are set to convene in Geneva this week
While the Geneva talks were scheduled to begin Monday, officials say a delay of at least a day is likely because of a dispute about who will represent the opposition delegation.
Still, officials from the United States and Russia — two principal backers of the Geneva talks — have said they are optimistic that the negotiations will take place. Washington and Moscow are on opposing sides of the Syrian conflict, but the two nations say a political settlement is needed to end the punishing conflict.
“We are confident that with good initiative in the next day or so, those talks can get going,” U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Saturday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
The Obama administration has backed away from its longtime insistence that Assad step down from office as part of any U.N.-backed transition in Syria.
A Saudi-backed coalition that includes a number of hard-core Islamist groups insists it should be the sole opposition representative in Geneva. The group has threatened not to attend the talks if other opposition factions are invited.
But Russia, which backs Assad’s government, has objected to the composition of the Saudi-backed group and has called for a broader opposition delegation. Moscow wants a leading Syrian Kurdish political party invited to Geneva, and also seeks enhanced secular representation among opposition delegates.
The U.N. special Syrian envoy, Staffan de Mistura, is expected to provide further details about the status of the talks Monday in Geneva.
The Syrian conflict, raging for nearly five years, has cost more than 200,000 lives and resulted in more than 4 million Syrians having fled their homeland, while millions more have been displaced within Syria. The war has further destabilized the Middle East and contributed to the migrant crisis in Europe.
On the battlefront in Syria, government forces have long sought to expel rebels from Latakia, Assad’s home province and a government mainstay. The coastal province also houses the principal airbase used by Russian bombers and fighter jets.
Syrian Army engineering units arrived in the newly captured areas in Latakia to dismantle roadside bombs and mines planted by the “terrorists,” reported the official Syrian media, which refers to all armed rebels as terrorists.
The fall of Rabiaa, which has been in the hands of Islamist rebels since 2012, is the culmination of a months-long campaign to drive out the opposition from Latakia province. The loss of Rabiaa came less than two weeks after government forces overran the town of Salma, another former rebel bastion in the mountains of Latakia.
Opposition fighters fleeing Rabiaa escaped toward nearby Turkey, the government said.
(Bulos is a special correspondent.)
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In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site on Friday, Nov. 27, 2015, a Russian seaman stands next to a machine gun on the Russian missile cruiser Moskva, near the shore of Syria’s province of Latakia, Syria. The Russian military has ordered the ship equipped with an array of air defense missile systems to help protect Russian warplanes flying combat missions in Syria after the downing of a Russian military jet by Turkey.
RUSSIAN DEFENSE MINISTRY PRESS SERVICE POOL PHOTO