BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian troops backed by heavy aerial bombardment pushed toward a strategic town in the southern province of Deraa on Tuesday after capturing a nearby military base, the army said.
The Syrian army said it retook Brigade 82, one of the largest bases north of the mainly rebel-held town of Sheikh Maskin, whose capture by rebels earlier this year threatened the army’s supply routes to the south.
A group monitoring the war said later on Tuesday that insurgents were putting up fierce resistance and that fighting raged on, counting more than two dozen air strikes during the assault.
The army offensive toward Sheikh Maskin is part of the first major assault in southern Syria since Russia launched air strikes on Sept. 30 to support its ally President Bashar al-Assad.
The army also said in a news flash on state television it had recaptured the Al Hesh hills, northwest of Sheikh Maskin. The hilltops, held by the rebels for about a year, overlook much of rebel-held western Deraa.
The aerial bombardment supporting Tuesday’s ground offensive appeared to be carried out by Russian jets, the monitoring group said.
Russia has until recently focused its bombing on insurgent targets in northwestern Syria and coastal areas to help the Syrian army claw back territory it lost earlier this year.
Sheikh Maskin, the main goal of the army’s southern campaign, lies on one of the main supply routes from the capital Damascus to the city of Deraa, close to the border with Jordan.
Activists say Russian air strikes, in which missiles and bombs are launched from high altitude, are distinct from Syrian air force strikes which rely more on untreated barrel bombs dropped from helicopters flying at lesser height.
Russian strikes tend to be more concentrated and precise, using several aircraft rather than the one frequently deployed by Syria’s military. Residents say their munitions also leave deeper craters.
The recapture of Sheikh Maskin, located at the heart of Deraa province, would consolidate the army’s hold over the heavily fortified region which has formed a southern line of defense protecting Damascus.
A rebel in Falujat Hauran brigade said rebel groups, including al Qaeda’s Syrian branch the Nusra Front, were engaged in heavy fighting to prevent the town’s fall.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said that two large blasts were heard in the area, believed to be two car bombs detonated by the Nusra Front. It said there were reports that insurgents had begun to advance again toward the base.
Rebels still control large parts of the region, that also borders Israel, but have been largely on the defensive since their failed offensive in June to take government-controlled part of Deraa city.
The south is the last major stronghold of the mainstream, anti-Assad opposition, who have been weakened elsewhere by the expansion of the ultra-hardline Islamic State group in the east and north, and gains by the Nusra Front in the northwest.
Non-Nusra rebels in the south receive what they describe as small amounts of military and financial support from Western and Arab states. It has been channeled via Jordan, a U.S. ally that is determined to protect its Syrian frontier from jihadists.
North of Damascus, the army said on Tuesday it regained control of the town of Maheen, captured by Islamic State last month, which is about 20 km (10 miles) from the highway running north from Damascus to the cities of Homs, Hama and Aleppo.
In the northwest of the country, rebels shelled two Shi‘ite villages, killing at least one person, residents said, a day after pro-government fighters and civilians left the area for Turkey under a local ceasefire agreement.
Additional reporting by John Davison; Editing by Dominic Evans