AMMAN: Russian air support for Syrian regime ground offensives in the East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus continued on Monday, the same day that a reported double airstrike killed an FSA commander and dozens of civilians in a rebel-held village in the coastal Latakia province.
Multiple airstrikes of unverified origin along with rocket-launcher shelling by regime forces hit East Ghouta’s Marj a-Sultan, 20 kilometers east of Damascus on Monday, pro-opposition Syria News Time reported. Marj a-Sultan lies in an agricultural area six kilometers northeast of the regime-held Damascus International Airport, and is considered a gateway into East Ghouta.
The air and ground assaults in recent days have reportedly displaced 900 families from the town to nearby villages and injured 100.
The spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Defense, Igor Konashenkov, on Monday said that Russian airstrikes had targeted the Islamic State in East Ghouta.
Civilian and rebel sources in East Ghouta denied Russian reports that IS fighters were the target of Monday’s airstrikes.
“There is no Islamic State here,” Amer al-Shami, an East Ghouta-based journalist told Syria Direct on Tuesday, alluding to a 2014 campaign by Jaish al-Islam and other rebel groups that “killed a large number” of IS fighters.
The Islamic State “is completely wiped out from all of Ghouta,” al-Shami said, an account also corroborated by other sources on the ground interviewed in recent weeks by Syria Direct.
The most prominent rebel group in the East Ghouta suburbs, Jaish al-Islam, is “the number one enemy of IS,” al-Shami said, underscoring the unlikely prospect that airstrikes in East Ghouta targeted large groups of IS fighters.
Regime forces supported by Russian air power have been attempting to push towards Marj a-Sultan from their nearby positions since last Friday, the pro-opposition Syrian Reporter reported on Tuesday, adding that rebel forces had held off the ground offensive.
Moscow's spokesman also said that IS fighters had been driven towards Marj al-Sultan by Russian air strikes, the state-run TASS agency reported, a statement echoed by the Syrian state media on the same day.
“Airstrikes have destroyed headquarters of terrorist organizations’ leadership in East Ghouta,” and led others to flee, SANA quoted an unnamed military source as saying on Monday. Meanwhile, Syrian opposition media reported that regime ground attacks near Marj a-Sultan had been largely staved off.
“Russia considers all rebels to be IS,” Wael Alwan, spokesman for Ajnad a-Sham, one of the rebel groups operating in East Ghouta, told Syria Direct on Tuesday.
Air raid kills Latakia FSA commander
Russian missiles also struck positions in Latakia and Aleppo on Monday, while footage of strikes in Idlib and Hama “against terrorist positions” was released in a video published by Russia Today.
Russian warplanes also bombed an FSA-controlled village in the northern Latakia countryside on Monday, killing a rebel leader and 50 others including civilians, a local rebel spokesman told Syria Direct Tuesday.
The attack on the town of Buz al-Khirbeh in the Jabal al-Akrad region occurred in two stages: After the first air raid targeted civilian houses, Major Basel Zimou of Liwa al-Asifa, a rebel outfit belonging to the FSA-affiliated First Division in the Coast, headed with four comrades to assist the wounded when his car was targeted by a secondary air strike, said Rustum Abu al-Waleed, a First Division spokesman.
The First Division in the Coast was formed 10 months ago after four FSA-affiliated rebel brigades joined forces, including Liwa al-Asifa and Al-Liwa al-Awwal.
Zimou was killed as a result of the secondary air raid. The twin air raids' casualties include 50 dead, including 12 First Division fighters and 10 members of a single family, a spokesman for the pro-opposition Union of Coastal Media Activists told Syria Direct Tuesday from the village of Buz al-Khirbeh.
The two-pronged bombing was the reason behind the high number of civilian casualties, an Ahrar a-Sham spokesman who was at the scene told Syria Direct Tuesday.
“Residents rushed to the bombing site to save those trapped under the rubble—after half an hour the Russian warplanes launched a second raid on the same place, leading to a large number of dead and wounded,” Ali al-Hafawitold Syria Direct Monday.
Buz al-Khirbeh is located four kilometers south from the al-Jub al-Ahmar front between regime and rebel forces in the northern Latakia countryside. The town is located on a road on which rebels are attempting to move south in order to reach the Nabi Yusef Peak, the highest point in the Jabal al-Akrad region in Latakia province.
The regime began a renewed campaign to retake the northern Latakia countryside two weeks ago, backed by Russian air support, but so far has been unable to realize meaningful progress.
“The regime has gone crazy because it's unable to advance in al-Jub al-Ahmar...despite Russian bombing and foreign militia support,” said al-Hafawi.
Russian airstrikes “destroyed a training camp for Islamic State terrorist snipers in Jabal al-Akrad,” state news agency SANA reported Monday, quoting an unnamed military source.