BEIRUT (Reuters) - Insurgents captured a town on a major highway in western Syria on Thursday, in a blow to the Russian-backed campaign against them, rebels and a monitoring group said.
Moscow’s intervention in the war on the side of President Bashar al-Assad, ostensibly to fight Islamic State, has mostly hit other insurgents including more moderate groups, according to the U.S. State Department.
Syrian army offensives backed by allied militia, Russian air strikes, Iranian troops and Hezbollah fighters to retake territory from those groups in the west and northwest have had limited success at best.
Rebels say better organization and new tactics have helped them fight back, as supporters including Saudi Arabia and Qatar send new weapons supplies.
The capture of Morek was another blow to Damascus and Moscow. The town is north of Hama city on a major north-south highway crucial to control of western Syria.
A rebel commander on the ground said Morek had been “liberated”, describing it as strategically important.
“It was a center for the gathering of regime forces and a point of departure for its operations,” said Fares al-Bayoush of rebel group Fursan al-Haq, which is fighting under the Free Syrian Army banner.
Another FSA commander confirmed the takeover, saying rebels would work to press north.
“The next step for us is now to liberate the highway between Morek and Suran. This is where the Syrian army and its militias had retreated and where fighting has now moved,” the al-Izza group’s Jamil Saleh said.
Russian air strikes had intensified against rebels following Morek’s capture, he said.
But he said the “Russians and their planes have been a bad omen to Bashar and the militias who are with him.”
Government forces fought for months to take control of Morek in October 2014 and lost many fighters, said Rami Abdulrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“They worked hard to retake it last year and now they lost it in a few hours,” he said, adding that insurgents had entered the town easily.
The Syrian army and allied militia had not made significant progress after a month of Russian strikes, said Abdulrahman, who is based in Britain and tracks the conflict using sources inside Syria.
“We cannot say the regime is going forward, no way.”
Syrian state media made no immediate mention of Morek’s capture.
A statement by an army spokesman broadcast on state television later in the day said a number of “terrorists” had been killed in the area around Morek and nearby Kafr Nabuda, without elaborating.
A Syrian military source had previously told Reuters the government operations were going according to plan.
The Observatory reported that Islamist insurgents from the Jund al-Aqsa group, backed by other fighters, took the town overnight after firing hundreds of shells and rockets.
Later on Thursday, insurgents in Idlib province took over Tal Skik near the highway, an area which the Syrian army and Hezbollah had captured last month.
Still farther north, al Qaeda’s Nusra Front captured the areas of Telat al-Maqbara and Telat al-Saru after fierce clashes with pro-government fighters, the Observatory said, confirming online claims by the Front.
Russia has stepped up efforts to broker a peace deal between Damascus and the splintered opposition.
Its deputy foreign minister said the Kremlin would invite representatives of both sides to meet in Moscow next week, and a Russian news agency reported that an FSA delegation had agreed to meet Russian officials in Abu Dhabi.
But representatives of FSA-affiliated groups that receive backing from foreign states opposed to Assad dismissed the report. Bayoush said the Russians had been meeting Syrians who falsely claimed to be FSA.
Additional reporting by Tom Perry and John Davison, Yara Bayoumy in Dubai, Jack Stubbs and Polina Devitt in Moscow; Writing by John Davison; Editing by Andrew Roche