BEIRUT/WASHINGTON: U.S. forces airdropped small arms ammunition and other supplies to Syrian Arab rebels, barely two weeks after Russia raised the stakes in the long-running civil war by intervening on the side of President Bashar Assad.
One military official said that the drop, by Air Force C-17 cargo planes in northern Syrian Sunday, was part of a revamped American strategy announced last week to help rebels in Syria battling ISIS militants.
Last week, Washington shelved a program to train and equip “moderate” rebels opposed to Assad who would join the fight against ISIS.
The only organization on the ground to have success against Islamic State while cooperating with the American-led coalition is a Kurdish militia, the YPG, which has carved out an autonomous zone in northern Syria and advanced deep into Raqqa province, the ISIS group’s stronghold.
The YPG Monday announced a new alliance with small groups of Arab fighters, which could help deflect criticism that it fights only on behalf of Kurds.
Washington has indicated it could direct funding and weapons to Arab commanders on the ground who cooperate with the YPG.
Syrian Arab rebels said they had been told by Washington that new weapons were on their way to help them launch a joint offensive with their Kurdish allies on the city of Raqqa, the de facto ISIS capital.
The American military confirmed dropping supplies to opposition fighters vetted by the United States but would say no more about the groups that received the supplies or the type of equipment included in the airdrop.
The Russian intervention in the more than 4-year-old Syrian conflict has wrongfooted U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, which has been trying to defeat ISIS while still calling for Assad’s downfall.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin was rebuffed in his bid to gain support for his country’s bombing campaign in Syria, with Saudi sources saying they had warned the Kremlin leader of dangerous consequences and Europe issuing its strongest criticism yet.
Putin met Saudi Deputy Crown prince Mohammad bin Salman on the sidelines of a Formula One race in a Russian resort Sunday.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Monday said those talks, along with discussions with the United States, had yielded progress on the conflict, although Moscow, Washington and Riyadh did not agree in full “as yet.” A Saudi source said that the deputy crown prince, a son of the Saudi king, had told Putin that Russia’s intervention would escalate the war and inspire militants from around the world to go there to fight.
Riyadh would go on supporting Assad’s opponents and demand that he leave power, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
European foreign ministers, who were meeting in Luxembourg, issued a statement calling on Moscow to halt its bombing of Assad’s moderate enemies immediately.
They were unable to agree on whether Assad should have any role in ending the crisis but they did decide to extend sanctions by essentially freezing the assets of the spouses of senior Syrian figures.
“The recent Russian military attacks ... are of deep concern and must cease immediately,” ministers said in a strongly worded statement. The war has claimed 250,000 lives and caused a refugee crisis in neighboring countries and Europe.
Moscow says it targets only banned terrorist groups in Syria, primarily ISIS. In its briefings, it describes all of the targets it strikes as belonging to the extremist group.
However, most strikes have taken place in areas held by other opposition groups, including many that are supported by Arab states, Turkey and the West in a war which has also assumed a sectarian dimension with Shiite Iran at odds with Saudi Arabia’s Sunni rulers.
Meanwhile, Syrian government forces and their allies from the Lebanese group Hezbollah, backed by Iranian military officers, have launched a massive ground offensive in coordination with the Russian air support.
They fought their fiercest clashes Monday since the assault began, advancing in strategically important territory near the north-south highway linking Syria’s main cities.
Russian warplanes carried out at least 30 airstrikes on the town of Kafr Nabuda in Hama province in western Syria, and hundreds of shells struck the area.
The Syrian army announced the capture of Kafr Nabuda and four other villages in Hama province.
It also said the army had seized Jub al-Ahmar, a highland area in Latakia province which will put more rebel positions in the nearby Ghab Plain within range of the army’s artillery.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based anti-regime activist group, said that fierce clashes raged in both Kafr Nabuda and Jub al-Ahmar.
The Observatory’s director, Rami Abdulrahmman, said the army and allied forces had taken part of Kafr Nabuda, and were fighting insurgents for full control of the town.
The U.N. diplomat trying to convene talks to end the war said he would hold talks in Russia on Tuesday and then in Washington.