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Russia touts gains in Syrian war

Military says 85% of territory recaptured from Assad’s foes

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Photographs by AP/NATALIYA VASILYEVA

Under the eye of a Syrian soldier, traffic moves Tuesday in what was once a rebel-controlled area of Aleppo, Syria.

ALEPPO, Syria -- Russia's military said Tuesday that Syrian troops have retaken about 85 percent of the territory once controlled by militants, two years after Moscow intervened to lend a hand to its embattled ally.

Russia has been providing air cover for President Bashar Assad's troops since 2015, changing the tide of the war by giving Syrian and allied forces an advantage over opposition fighters and Islamic State militants.

Lt. Gen. Alexander Lapin announced the gains during comments at Hemeimeem air base in Syria, saying militants still control about 10,425 square miles.

Reporters were later flown to Aleppo city, which opposition fighters lost to the Syrian government in late 2016, and where Russian military police patrol some areas.

[THE ISLAMIC STATE: Timeline of group’s rise, fall; details on campaign to fight it]

Syrian troops, with Russian air support and accompanied by Iran-backed fighters, have in recent weeks pushed Islamic State militants out of central Homs province, near the border with Lebanon, and are now fighting them in the oil-rich Deir el-Zour province in the east. Last week, Syrian troops broke a nearly 3-year-old Islamic State siege on government-held parts of the provincial capital.

Activists say civilians are bearing the brunt of the offensive. An overnight airstrike hit Syrians who were recently displaced from Deir el-Zour, killing at least eight civilians.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Omar Abu Laila, who runs a group that monitors developments in Deir el-Zour, said the airstrikes were believed to be from Russian aircraft.

The Islamic State still controls much of the Euphrates River Valley in eastern Syria, as well as pockets of territory elsewhere in Syria and Iraq. An al-Qaida-linked group controls northern Idlib province, bordering Turkey, while Syrian rebels maintain a dwindling number of enclaves elsewhere.

On Tuesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Assad met in Damascus to discuss measures to eliminate the Islamic State, the Russian Defense Ministry said.

Assad's fortunes have changed drastically since Russia entered the civil war two years ago. At the time, his overstretched forces were retreating in the face of a rebel offensive in the north.

Moscow began deploying an air force contingent and other military assets at the Hemeimeem base in August 2015.

In a matter of weeks, Russia's military built up the base so it could host dozens of Russian jets. It delivered thousands of tons of military equipment and supplies by sea and heavy-lift cargo planes in an operation dubbed the Syrian Express. A month later, Moscow declared the launch of its air campaign in Syria -- Russia's first military action outside the former Soviet Union since the federation's collapse.

In April 2016, Assad's forces, relying on Russian air support, scored a symbolic victory by taking the ancient town of Palmyra from the Islamic State. The militants retook it in a counteroffensive but were driven out again in March.

Assad's greatest victory in the war, now in its seventh year, came when his troops and allied militias gained full control of Aleppo.

Senior Russian military officers as well as special forces were deployed alongside Syrian government troops, providing training, planning offensives and coordinating airstrikes. Russia has also deployed its latest weapons to the Syrian conflict, including state-of-the-art Kalibr cruise missiles launched by Russian strategic bombers, navy surface warships and submarines.

Russia's Defense Ministry has not said how many troops it has in Syria, but turnout figures in voting from abroad in the September 2016 parliamentary elections indicated that Russian military personnel in the Arab nation likely exceeded 4,300. The Russian military said last week that 34 of its servicemen have been killed in Syria.

Russia has also co-sponsored talks with opposition fighters and the government to negotiate cease-fires and set up "de-escalation zones" credited with reducing fighting around the country. A new round of talks is set for later this week.

Information for this article was contributed by Howard Amos and Sarah El Deeb of The Associated Press.

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A Russian military police officer stands guard Tuesday in the yard of Aleppo’s oldest Umayyad mosque in Syria. + Enlarge

A Section on 09/13/2017

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