Bashar al Assad’s Syrian regime forces have advanced in the governorates of Hama and Latakia against opposition fighters who have been struggling to hold onto their territories since the initiation of Russian air strikes last week.
Regime forces on Saturday seized the village of Atshan and Tel Skak in Hama from the Fatah Army coalition, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).
Backed by Russian air strikes, the regime forces appear to be heading northwest to Khan Sheikhun, a strategic town on the M5 highway linking the capital Damascus and the country’s second largest city Aleppo in the neighbouring opposition-held Idlib governorate.
A regime source told the Agence France Presse news agency that Assad’s forces had retaken the Sukayk hills, which overlook the road, during the assault.
Speaking to reporters, the Syrian regime forces’ political chief General Samir Suleiman said that a small valley in Hama had been cleared and tunnels used by opposition fighters had been discovered.
The SOHR claimed the regime was also making advances in the coastal governorate of Latakia, a stronghold of Assad’s minority Alawite sect.
Fierce fighting is reportedly taking place between regime and opposition fighters in Hama’s Sahl al Ghab plain, located south of the opposition-held Jisr al Shughour neighbourhood in Idlib and the Al Ansariya mountain range of Latakia.
A Russian fighter jet was hit by opposition fighters during an operation in the area but was not downed, the SOHR also reported.
Russia started conducting air strikes in Syria in support of Assad regime forces immediately after authorisation was granted by the Russian Parliament on Sept. 30. Initially Russia claimed it was targeting ISIS militants.
However, reports from Syrian activists and opposition members suggest that most of the areas hit by Russian air strikes are controlled by opposition groups fighting against Syrian regime forces.
ISIS had noticeably advanced towards the northern province of Aleppo in Syria early on Friday, seizing several villages and taking advantage of Russian air strikes in the region that dispersed the Syrian opposition forces.
— Julie Lenarz (@MsIntervention) October 9, 2015
The SOHR on Saturday stated that Russian air strikes had hit opposition-held areas in western and northern Syria.
The US Department of Defense said on Friday that it was planning to hold talks with Russia over the safety of pilots and the prevention of accidental crashes as early as this weekend, as both countries continue air strikes in Syria.
Since the start of Russian air strikes in Syria on Sept. 30, there were concerns about incidents between the air forces of the two countries and the US has reported at least one case where a US jet had to change course to avoid an incident.
The US has refused cooperation with Russia regarding air strikes in Syria, since the main aim of Russian intervention is to help Syrian regime leader, Bashar al Assad. The US says Assad has to step down in order for there to be a peaceful resolution to Syria’s crisis.
However, the Pentagon made several proposals to Russian military officials last week aimed at avoiding incidents and said it was waiting for a formal response to hold further talks.
"The Department of Defense has received a formal response from the Russian Ministry of Defense regarding DOD's proposal to ensure safe air operations over Syria," Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said.
"Department leaders are reviewing the Russian response and talks are likely to take place as soon as this weekend."
Over four years of fighting in Syria has left over 250,000 Syrians dead, according to UN estimates.
More than 6.7 million are displaced internally while at least 5 million have fled the country to the neighbouring countries of Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan.