By Hummam Sheikh Ali
The battle map in Syria has largely changed in favor of the Syrian army with Russian support in the air, forcing militant groups to switch to defense mode recently.
On Oct. 8, almost a week after the beginning of the Russian strikes, Syria’s Army Chief of Staff Gen. Abdullah Ayoub said the military has unleashed a broad offensive against rebel-held areas across the country, which is buoyed by Russian air support.
“After the Russian air strikes, the Syrian army took the initiative and formed a force equipped with guns and munitions, most importantly the Intrusion Squad,” he said.
The senior Syrian military officer said Russia’s air strikes have weakened the rebel groups, while the army now can have a stronger position, adding that the army has formed a new force, including a battalion called the Intrusion Squad.
On Oct. 12, the Syrian Military General Command said the Syrian army had advanced in the countryside of the central province of Hama against armed militant groups.
On Oct. 16, the General Command said in a statement the army troops backed by the Syrian and Russian air force achieved victories on several fronts in the south, central and coastal regions.
The military operations included areas in the eastern countryside of Damascus, the southern province of Qunaitera, bordering the Israel-occupied Golan Heights, the southern province of Daraa, the northern countryside of the central province of Homs, the countryside of Hama, the northern province of Aleppo and the northern countryside of the coastal city of Latakia, where the Russians and Iranians are reportedly sharing the Bassel al-Assad Airport as a base to their operations.
An oppositional monitor group said Thursday that thousands of Iranian forces were arriving in Latakia and being transported to the old part of the Basel al-Assad airport.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said the Russian air force are stationed in the new part of the airport, adding that the airport has stopped receiving international flights and has been turned into a base for the Iranian forces and the Russians.
The Iranian forces are arriving to take part in battles in the northern countryside of Hama, the countryside of Idlib and the Latakia Mountains, said the Observatory, adding that the Russian air force is taking part in those battles as well.
The Observatory said Russian forces are working on the construction of a long runway in the Latakia airport capable of receiving larger warplanes.
It added that the Russians are also expanding the al-Hamidiyeh airport in the coastal city of Tartus, another sign signifying the expansion of the Russian and Iranian involvement in Syria.
The Latakia airbase has recently witnessed the arrival of “hundreds” of Russian military advisors and experts, it said.
“Most certainly the armed militant groups have moved from offense to defense and that is clear after they have lost large areas, such as in the northern countryside of Latakia, where the army has progressed toward the town of Salma, which has been under the rebel control and was extremely difficult for the Syrian troops to advance toward it without the Russian air cover due to its rugged terrain,” Osama Danura, a political analyst, told Xinhua.
The state news agency SANA said Saturday that the Syrian army killed 300 militants near Salma.
Maher Ihsan, another political analyst, said “the situation on ground has shown that all of the rebel factions have become on defense on all of the frontlines.”
In Idlib, which has recently fallen to the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, the militants are in a tough situation as the Syrian army has reached the southern outskirts of that province, Ihsan told Xinhua.
He added that in the northern countryside of Hama, adjacent to southern Idlib, the militants lose an average of six towns on daily basis.
In Homs, the Syrian army has engaged in four battles simultaneously under the Russian air cover.
“In all of the opened fronts, namely in Daraa, Damascus, Homs, Hama, Idlib, and Aleppo, the militants are on the defense, and if we wanted to analyze the reason behind such a turnabout we will surely see that the Russian air force intervention has had a major impact and we must not forget that the Russian intervention is not only confined to the airstrikes because the Russians are also involved in the reconnaissance operations that are linked with satellite, which enables them to precisely mark the targets,” he said.
Lt. Gen. Andrei Kartapolov, head of the Russian General Staff Main Operations Directorate, said on Friday that there are some 40,000-50,000 IS terrorists in Syria.
He, however, said there are growing numbers of IS militants becoming discontent with their command and deserted the ranks under the Russian anti-terror operation.
“The majority of armed gangs are demoralized. Discontent with field commanders is growing among the fighters, and there are instances of disobeying orders,” Kartapolov said.
Cases of desertion among the jihadists are no longer isolated, with them now fleeing “en masse,” the colonel general, who heads operations in the Russian general staff, added.
The Russian air force has so far conducted around 670 strikes, destroying over 450 positions of the terrorist groups. Hundreds of terrorists and dozens of command posts, depots and other IS infrastructure have been destroyed, according to Russian Defense Ministry officials.