Thursday 21 November 2019

Russian attacks backfiring, says US as Isil reaches Aleppo

President Bashar al Assad
President Bashar al Assad

Louisa Loveluck, Ahmed Vahdat and Richard Spencer in London

IsIL militants reached the outskirts of Syria's second city yesterday as the US warned Russia its campaign to tackle the extremist group was backfiring.

The jihadists launched a surprise attack on non-Isil rebel positions north of Aleppo on Thursday night, seizing at least three villages and a former army base that rebels had captured from troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad two years ago.

The attack brought them close to regime positions in the north-east of the city. Further advances could mean rebels, including many characterised as "moderate" by the West, become sealed inside the besieged city by a circle of regime and Isil fighters.

The attack came 10 days after Russia began air strikes on targets across northern and western Syria, claiming to be fighting Isil but, according to reports from the ground and the detailed list of their targets, mostly hitting the non-Isil rebel groups that present the greatest threat to the regime.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, described the attack as Isil's most significant for months. It has raised fears that Russia, by hitting rebel groups that are fighting Isil as well as the regime, will inadvertently strengthen the hardline jihadists they say they want to crush. Many rebels say the policy is deliberate, and that Russia is pursuing a strategy Mr Assad devised, of deliberately assisting Isil so that the West is given a choice of supporting the regime or Isil.

On Thursday, Ashton Carter, the US defence secretary, accused Moscow of inflaming extremism.

"By taking the side of Assad they inflame the civil war - and therefore extremism - and prolong the suffering of the Syrian people," said Mr Carter in London.

"They are going to have the effect also of turning everyone against Russia itself. This will boomerang in a very direct way on Russia."

The Pentagon said it was "pausing" its own programme to train rebel groups to fight Isil, and would instead focus on equipping and providing direct air support to approved groups.

Irish Independent

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