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Russia touts Syrian gains 2 years after intervention

FILE - In this Dec. 18, 2015 file photo, provided by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, a load of ammunition is prepared to be loaded on Russian war planes at Hemeimeem Air Base, in Syria. Russia's military said Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017, that Syrian troops have liberated about 85 percent of the war-torn country's territory from militants. Russia has been providing air cover for President Bashar Assad's troops since 2015, changing the tide of the war and giving Syrian and allied troops an advantage over opposition fighters and Islamic State group militants. (Vadim Savitsky/Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP, File)

ALEPPO, Syria (AP) — Russia’s military said Tuesday that Syrian troops have retaken about 85 percent of the territory once controlled by militants, a major turnaround two years after Moscow intervened to lend a hand to its embattled ally.

Russia has been providing air cover for President Bashar Assad’s troops since 2015, changing the tide of the war and giving Syrian and allied troops an advantage over opposition fighters and Islamic State militants.

Lt. Gen. Alexander Lapin announced the gains at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria, saying militants still control some 27,000 square kilometers (10,425 square miles).

Reporters were later flown to Aleppo city, which opposition fighters lost to the Syrian government in late 2016, and where Russian military police patrol some areas.

Syrian troops, with Russian air support and accompanied by Iran-backed fighters, have in recent weeks pushed IS militants out of central Homs province, near the border with Lebanon, and are now fighting them in the oil-rich Deir el-Zour province in the east. A week ago, Syrian troops broke a nearly three-year-old IS siege on government-held parts of the provincial capital.

But activists say civilians are bearing the brunt of the offensive. An overnight airstrike hit Syrians who were recently displaced from Deir el-Zour, killing at least eight civilians.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Omar Abu Laila, who runs a group that monitors developments in Deir el-Zour, said the airstrikes were suspected to be from Russian aircraft.

IS still controls much of the Euphrates River Valley, in eastern Syria, and pockets of territory elsewhere in Syria and Iraq. Al al-Qaida-linked group controls the northern Idlib province, bordering Turkey, while Syrian rebels maintain a dwindling number of enclaves elsewhere.

On Tuesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Assad met in Damascus to discuss measures to eliminate IS, the Russian Defense Ministry said.

Assad’s fortunes have changed dramatically since Russia entered the complex civil war two years ago. At the time his overstretched forces were retreating in the face of a rebel offensive in the north.

Moscow began deploying an air force contingent and other military assets at the Hemeimeem base, in the heartland of Assad’s Alawite religious minority, in August 2015.

In a matter of weeks, Russia’s military built up the base so it could host dozens of Russian jets. It delivered thousands of tons of military equipment and supplies by sea and heavy-lift cargo planes in an operation dubbed the “Syrian Express.” A month later, Moscow declared the launch of its air campaign in Syria — Russia’s first military action outside the former Soviet Union since the federation’s collapse.

In April 2016, Assad’s forces, relying on Russian air support, scored a major symbolic victory by taking the ancient town of Palmyra from the Islamic State group. The IS militants retook it in a counteroffensive, but were driven out again in March.

Assad’s greatest victory in the war, now in its seventh year, came when his troops and allied militias gained full control of the city of Aleppo.

Senior Russian military officers as well as special forces were deployed alongside Syrian government troops, providing training, planning offensives and coordinating airstrikes. Russia has also deployed its latest weapons to the Syrian conflict, including state-of-the art Kalibr cruise missiles launched by Russian strategic bombers, navy surface warships and submarines.

Russia’s Defense Ministry has not said how many troops it has in Syria, but turnout figures in voting from abroad in the September 2016 parliamentary elections indicated Russian military personnel in the Arab nation at the time likely exceeded 4,300. The Russian military said last week 34 of its servicemen have been killed in Syria.

Russia has also co-sponsored talks with opposition fighters and the government to negotiate local cease-fires, and set up “de-escalation zones” credited with reducing fighting around the country. A new round of talks is set for later this week.


Associated Press writers Howard Amos in Moscow and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.

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