Smoke rises after what activists said were air strikes carried out by the Russian air force on Talat al-Sayyad in the northern countryside of Hama yesterday. Supported by two weeks of air strikes, the Syrian army and its allies have been fighting insurgents in northern Hama province, and neighbouring Idlib and Latakia provinces, trying to reverse rebel gains over the summer which had threatened the coastal heartlands of Assad’s Alawite minority.
Russia and the United States said yesterday that they were close to agreeing a deal to avoid clashes between their warplanes over Syria, as regime forces bombarded rebels near Damascus.
Fighting was also reported on the ground in the northern city of Aleppo, where militants from the Islamic State group were advancing against rebels.
Talks by videoconference yesterday came after US and Russian planes passed within kilometres of each other at the weekend.
Russia’s air campaign, launched on September 30, has raised fears of a confrontation with the US-led coalition that has been bombing IS in Syria and Iraq for more than a year.
“Positions became closer on key provisions of the future document,” Russia’s defence ministry said.
“The procedure for further action by the two sides was agreed,” it added, without elaborating.
In Washington, a defence department official said a deal could be signed in “the coming days”.
“We are nearing completion of a memorandum of agreement that would set up procedures to enhance air safety,” the official said.
Coalition spokesman Colonel Steve Warren had said earlier that US-led warplanes and Russian ones came just “miles apart” over Syria.
“Visual identification took place. All pilots conducted themselves appropriately and everyone went about their business,” he said.
“But this is dangerous right? ... There’s always going to be some risk if there are uncoordinated actors in the battle space.”
Moscow confirmed the incident, saying one of its fighters had approached a coalition plane after detecting “emissions from an unidentified flying object”.
“Our fighter turned and flew to a distance of 2 to 3km (from the plane), not with the aim of scaring someone, but to identify the object in question and to whom it belonged,” defence ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said.
Moscow said earlier that Washington had declined to host a high-ranking Russian delegation or to send its own team to hold separate broader discussions on Syria.
“We have been told that they can’t send a delegation to Moscow and they can’t host a delegation in Washington either,” said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Russia’s intervention has raised tensions with Washington, and Germany cautioned yesterday against a full-blown conflict between them.
Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is to visit Iran, Saudi Arabia and Jordan in the coming days, said he wanted to “urgently caution the US and Russia not to militarily engage in a way that in the end could lead to a conflict”.
Russia, which says its campaign is targeting IS, announced yesterday that its jets had hit 40 targets belonging to the militant group in five Syrian provinces in the past day.
Washington and its allies accuse Moscow of targeting moderate Western-backed rebels and propping up President Bashar al-Assad, a long-time Russian ally.
Syria’s regime has managed to advance in the strategic Sahl al-Ghab region that is a gateway to Assad’s coastal heartland of Latakia thanks to Russian air support.
And yesterday regime forces began an operation to dislodge insurgents from the Jobar area on the eastern outskirts of Damascus, a military source said.
A day earlier, Russia’s embassy was hit by two rockets reportedly fired from rebel-held territory on the eastern edges of Damascus. There were no reports of dead or wounded.
Jobar, a battleground for more than two years, has been devastated and most of its residents fled. The army has tried repeatedly to retake it.
In other violence, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said two women and six children from Azerbaijan, probably families of IS fighters, were killed in an air strike in Deir al-Zor province. It was unclear whose planes were involved.
In northern Syria, meanwhile, the Observatory said IS had seized territory in Aleppo province from rebels, blocking a key route between Aleppo city and Turkey.
The fighting killed 13 IS fighters and seven rebels.
Iran MPs visit Damascus ahead of joint offensive
A delegation of Iranian lawmakers arrived in Damascus yesterday in the build-up to a joint operation against insurgents in northwest Syria, and said US-led efforts to fight rebels had failed.
The visit, led by the chairman of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, came as Iranian troops prepared to bolster a Syrian army offensive that two senior officials said would target rebels in Aleppo.
The attack, which the officials said would be backed by Russian air strikes, underlined the growing involvement in the civil war of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s two main allies, which has alarmed a US-led coalition opposed to the president that is bombing Islamic State militants.
“The international coalition led by America has failed in the fight against terrorism. The co-operation between Syria, Iraq, Iran and Russia has been positive and successful,” Boroujerdi was quoted as saying by Iran’s state broadcaster IRIB as he arrived at Damascus airport.
The delegation was due to meet Assad, said officials.
Iran has sent thousands of troops into Syria in recent days to bolster the planned ground offensive in Aleppo, the two officials said.
Iran’s Tasnim news agency reported two senior officers from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards - Major General Farshad Hasounizadeh and Brigadier Hamid Mokhtarband - were killed fighting IS militants in Syria on Monday, though it did not say where.
Another senior Revolutionary Guards commander, Hossein Hamedani, was killed last week while advising the Syrian army near Aleppo.
Assad’s government has been strengthened by two weeks of Russian air strikes that the Kremlin says are targeting IS. The United States says they have also targeted other rebel groups.
With military support from Russian and Iran, the Syrian army is trying to drive insurgents from western areas crucial to Assad’s survival.
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said on Tuesday that Tehran was working with Russia on drafting a peace plan for Syria. But Western powers, and many countries in the Middle East, say Assad must go as a precondition for peace.
Abdollahian said Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, would visit Tehran next week to discuss the peace plan.
The commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ foreign wing, Major General Qassem Soleimani, is said to be heavily involved in guiding military strategy.
Lebanon’s Shia militia Hezbollah has done much of the fighting to prop up the Syrian army.
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