RABIAA, Syria, Jan. 24 (UPI) — Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have captured a major rebel-held town near the Turkish border in Syria’s Latakia province.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Syrian miltary, backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and Russian officers and airstrikes, seized the town of Rabiaa on Sunday.
The Observatory reported regime forces also captured the nearby villages of Daroshan and al-Rawda.
Pro-government forces in the northwestern Syrian province have been on the offensive since Russia intervened and began conducting airstrikes on behalf of Assad in late September.
Prior to Russia’s intervention, pro-government forces had been pushed into positions in the western edge of Syria, including in Latakia province.
Earlier this month, pro-Assad forces captured the town of Salma, a strategically important town in Latakia province overlooking portions of a rural mountainous region known as Jabal al-Akrad. Rebel forces retreated to positions around Rabiaa last week after government troops began attacking into the hills surrounding Salma.
Activists said Russian airstrikes have played prominently in the operation, as have Russian officers advising ground troops.
Further consolidation over the province — which is home to the country’s ruling Alawite minority as well as a major Russian air base — could allow the Syrian military to attempt regaining control over the neighboring Idlib province, where a rebel coalition that includes Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s affiliate in the country, seized all major Syrian government strongholds early in 2015.
SOHR reported the Sunday fighting included “violent clashes” between the Nusra Front and pro-government forces.
The capture of Rabiaa comes one day before the originally scheduled date for peace talks aimed at ending Syria’s five-year conflict, but disagreements within the United Nations over which rebel groups will be represented have delayed the process.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed optimism the negotiations would commence this week, but U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said the United States was prepared to pursue a “military solution” against Islamic State forces in Syria should the talks fall through.