Russia-backed Syrian army advances in Hama, monitor says


The Syrian army, backed by Russian airstrikes, on Sunday gained more ground against Islamist rebels in the central province of Hama, a monitoring group reported.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that regime troops and fighters from the allied Lebanese Hezbollah movement recaptured the town of al-Bahsa in Sahel al-Ghab in the north-west of Hama.

Russian fighter jets carried out a series of airstrikes against rebels positions in Hama and the north-western province of Idlib, said the Britain-based Observatory, which relies on a network of activists inside Syria.

No casualties were reported.

The reported advance comes a day after troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by a Russian air covering, retook two strategic towns in Sahel al-Ghab where the Islamic State extremist militia is not known to have presence.

In July, a coalition of Islamist rebels including the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front attacked Sahel al-Ghab and seized it from the Syrian army.

Retaking Sahel al-Ghab is important for regime forces because the area lies at the junction of the provinces of Hama, Idlib and Latakia.

Sahel al-Ghab also connects Idlib to the mountains of Latakia, a stronghold of al-Assad.

Russia, an ally of al-Assad, started an air campaign in Syria on September 30 with the declared intent of hitting Islamic State.

The Russian airstrikes on rebel groups fighting both al-Assad’s troops and Islamic State have drawn an angry reaction from Gulf and Western countries that back the Syrian opposition.

On Sunday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said a new kind of Russian-made cluster bomb has been used in airstrikes in Syria for the first time.

The bombs, of a type designed to destroy armoured vehicles, were used a week ago in an airstrike south-west of the northern province of Aleppo, the New York-based rights group said.

Cluster bombs are banned by a 2008 convention signed by 98 states because they tend to leave behind unexploded bomblets that could cause civilian casualties.

Syrian opposition activists say cluster bombs have also been used in airstrikes near front lines north of Hama.

“It’s disturbing that yet another type of cluster munition is being used in Syria given the harm they cause to civilians for years to come,” said Nadim Houry, HRW’s deputy Middle East director.

HRW said it could not confirm whether the cluster bombs used at Kafr Halab, south-west of Aleppo, had been dropped by Syrian or Russian forces.

Neither country has signed the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, so they are not bound by its ban on the weapons.

HRW says Syrian forces have repeatedly used cluster bombs in the country’s civil war, which began in 2011.

It says that Islamic State also used them in its assault on the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane last year.