Middle East

Polish Air Force MiG-29 fighter takes off at the Zokniai air base near Siauliai, Lithuania
Russia begins military intervention against IS in Syria; IS closes in on Damascus

Russian fighter pilots, jets and helicopters will begin arriving in Syria in the coming days to join in the offensive against the Islamic State (IS) and rebel-aligned targets within the failing state Israeli news site Ynet News reported Monday.

According to Western diplomats, Russian expeditionary forces have already arrived in Syria to set up camp in an Assad-controlled airbase near Damascus, and will operate as a Russian forward operating base.

Thousands of Russian military personnel are set to arrive in Syria over the coming weeks, including instructors, advisors, logistics personnel, technical personnel, members of the aerial protection division, and the pilots who will operate the aircraft said Ynet.

While the exact make-up the expeditionary force is unconfirmed, past reports had stated that Russia was in talks to sell Syria a package of MiG-29 fighter jets, and Yak-130 trainer jets which can also operate as attack aircraft. The new presence of Russian pilots operating combat missions over Syria is expected to drastically challenge the dynamics of the region.


According to Ynet the Russians main goal is combating IS and preserving Assad's rule. They do not have offensive intentions towards Israel or other sovereign states in the area however, their presence will challenge the Israeli Air Force's previous freedom of operation in Middle East airspace.

A series of negotiations were recently reported between the Russians and the Iranians, mainly focusing on IS and the threat they pose to the Assad regime. Infamous Iranian Quds Force commander Major General Qasem Soleimani recently visited Moscow in the framework of these talks where they reached a strategic decision: Preserve Assad's seat of power by all means necessary, so that Syria may act as a barrier to prevent the spread of IS and Islamist backed militias into the former Soviet Islamic republics.

The United States has also been consulting with the Iranian regime about creating stronger joint effort against IS in Iraq. These actions lead many to believe that the US government currently views Iran as a necessary player in the drive against IS inside Iraq. The cooperation between the US and Iran has two main focal points: First is the Anbar province, where the Iraqis have failed to expel IS; and secondly in Mosul, where the Iraqis have yet to come up with a feasible plan to recapture the city said Ynet.

Western diplomatic sources have emphasized that the Obama administration is fully aware of the Russian intent to intervene directly in Syria, but has yet to issue any reaction. The absence of a vocal opposition from the Obama administration is compounded by its cessation of calls for the dissolution of Assad's murderous regime.

Ynet reported that while Russia has consistently sent weapons supplies to Syria for the duration of the Civil war, the arrival of the Russian forces is intended to train and equip Assad's war-battered army to regain areas lost to IS such as the strategic province of Idlib which is home to the Abu Duhur military airfield.

ISIS moves closer to central Damascus

The Islamic State group (IS) battled Syrian rebel forces in a Damascus neighborhood on Monday, bringing the militant group closer than ever to the center of the capital, a monitoring group said.

IS militants fought street battles against Islamist rebels in Asali, part of the capital's southern Qadam district, after seizing two streets there over the weekend, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

"This is the closest IS has ever been to the heart of Damascus," Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.

He said the militants had advanced from the adjacent Al-Hajar Al-Aswad neighbourhood, where they have been based since July 2014.

A Syrian military official confirmed the clashes and said he was "very happy that they are fighting."

"But we are ready to react if they try to advance into government-held territory," the official told AFP.

According to the Observatory, opposition-held Qadam has been relatively quiet since a truce between rebel groups and regime forces there a year ago.

Louai Beshara (AFP/File)

It said fighting in the district on Sunday left 15 fighters dead, but it could not specify how many were from IS and how many were Islamist rebels.

Abdel Rahman said the "fierce street battles" had forced civilians to flee the area.

Since its expulsion from the Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus last year, IS has used Al-Hajar Al-Aswad as a base for attacks on the capital.

From there, it tried to seize the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp in April, but was pushed back.

That same month, IS kidnapped two opposition fighters from Qadam and beheaded them in Al-Hajar Al-Aswad.

More than 240,000 people have been killed in Syria's conflict, which began with popular anti-government protests in March 2011 but has evolved into a complex civil war.

The conflict has seen the embattled regime of President Bashar al-Assad lose swathes of territory across the country.

In the northwest province of Idlib, the powerful Army of Conquest alliance edged closer to Fuaa, one of two remaining regime-held villages in the province.

The Observatory said the alliance, a collection of Islamist and militant groups including Al-Qaeda's Syria affiliate, seized the village of Sawaghiya on the southeast edge of Fuaa early Monday after overnight clashes.

The fighting left nine fighters from both sides and two civilians dead.

After capturing the majority of Idlib province, the Army of Conquest surrounded and began heavily shelling the Shiite Muslim villages of Fuaa and Kafraya.

This month saw two failed attempts at reaching broad ceasefire deals including Fuaa, Kafraya, and the rebel stronghold of Zabadani in Damascus province.

Fighting rages near Benghazi

Fresh fighting with Islamist groups in the eastern city of Benghazi has left Four Libyan soldiers dead and six wounded on Sunday, medics and military officials reported.

According to Arabic news site Al Arabiya News, forces loyal to Libya's internationally recognized government have spent the better part of a year fighting Islamist groups in the country's second-largest city Benghazi.

A tank battalion reportedly met Islamist brigades, which had been attempting to advance into western Benghazi, military officials said, with fighting continuing late into the night.

Abdullah Doma (AFP/File)

Some areas of Benghazi that were lost last year have been regained by army forces backed by armed residents. However critics say that the army's outdated war planes and helicopters which lack precision guns have damaged parts of the city without gaining much on the ground said Al Arabiya.

Sunday fighting was also reported outside the city of Derna to the east of Benghazi between IS and army units loyal to the official government. According to a military spokesperson the air force struck IS positions outside Derna. There were also ground clashes between the the opposing fiorces in the same area.

This month IS began an offensive to try retake Derna after rival Islamists expelled it in June. Army forces are positioned outside Derna but have not yet attempted to take the city.

The turmoil in Libya is highlighted by the latest rounds of fighting in which armed groups back two different governments who are vying for control. The Libyian prime minister was forced to relocated to the east after the capital, Tripoli, was captured by a rival group which set up its own government.

IS has taken full advantage of the chaos by launching attacks against embassies in Tripoli, taking over several places and executing foreigners said Al Arabiya.

(Staff with AFP)

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