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Airstrikes Help Syria's Regime Gain Control Of Opposition Town


And I'm Steve Inskeep with news of a change on the battlefield in Syria. The government has taken control of an opposition stronghold. President Bashar al-Assad's forces are making progress against U.S.-backed rebels, and they're doing it with help from Russia as well as Iran. NPR's Alison Meuse is tracking the story from Beirut. Hi, Alison.


INSKEEP: What did the government capture?

MEUSE: The government captured, according to Syrian state, activist - a town called Sheikh Maskin. Opposition activists say that's in large part because Russia has intensified its airstrikes. A spokesman for the Western-backed rebel alliance says they've had over 200 airstrikes in the past day and a half.

INSKEEP: OK, so let's just underline this. There is ISIS in Syria. There are also these U.S.-backed rebels. This is one clear example, you're saying, where Russian firepower was directed at the U.S.-backed rebels and not at the extremist groups.

MEUSE: Yes. We can say that southern Syria is one of the main bastions for the Western-backed opposition, and one of the few ones at that. So they're certainly trying to shore up their ally - the Assad regime - ahead of peace talks.

INSKEEP: How big a loss is it for the rebels to have lost this city?

MEUSE: Well, Sheikh Maskin sits on the crossroads of two highways - one leading from Damascus to Jordan and another going east to west. So what activists say is that with the regime in control, they're one step closer to severing rebel supply lines across southern Syria.

INSKEEP: OK, so we mentioned the Russian help. We also mentioned Iran's help. How was Iran helping to take this strategically-important town?

MEUSE: Well, Hezbollah troops are involved in this fight, which is very far from their home in Lebanon. And so they've invested themselves really across the country in the same way that Russia has to support the Assad regime against the domestic rebellion.

INSKEEP: I guess we better remind people of the basics here. Iran is a strong supporter of Hezbollah, this Shiite militia in Lebanon that's very powerful there and has lent troops to the Syrian government, right?

MEUSE: Exactly. Hezbollah is the main Iranian proxy operating in Syria. And Iran itself has announced that it's lost some of its big generals on the battlefield in Syria. So both Iran, its proxy and Russia are throwing their weight behind Assad.

INSKEEP: So we have this victory for Assad's side just as the United Nations is getting around to hosting new peace talks, which, without getting into too many details, seem to be starting slowly. And they're anticipated to take many months, if they work at all. How have those peace talks, the anticipated peace talks affected the fighting on the ground?

MEUSE: Well, let's look back for a moment. Last year, it was the rebels that were advancing in southern Syria. They took over the last regime-held border crossing with Jordan and another key town. And what this battle shows is that Russian support has allowed the regime to start clawing back territory however incrementally. And it also comes as the regime makes advances against rebels in Latakia, all ahead of these planned talks.

INSKEEP: Oh, does this mean that the Syrian government is in a stronger position for whatever peace talks are coming?

MEUSE: We can say that. The regime has still lost a lot of the country, whether it's to rebels, to ISIS, to Kurds who've declared autonomous zones. But the fact that they're advancing against rebels shows that they are trying to shore themselves up. And just a moment to clarify about the peace talks - they're being labeled as proximity talks. The sides will be in two separate rooms, not face-to-face. And it remains unclear 'til now if the talks will even proceed.

INSKEEP: OK, Alison, thanks very much.

MEUSE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Alison Meuse in Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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