CNN's Frederik Pleitgen has exclusive access inside Syrian regime's fight against ISIS
General credits Russian airstrikes and aerial intelligence
He says his forces recently have been gaining ground
Driving along a bumpy road on the eastern fringes of Syria’s Hama province, dozens of government army personnel watch from hills overlooking the desert.
Finally we reach a fork in the road – to the left lies Aleppo, to the right Raqqa, the self-declared capital of ISIS. In this barren place, we receive an escort to a large military base, where artillery cannons are firing intermittently. We’re taken to see the commanding general.
The general did not want to appear on camera and did not allow us to use his name, but he spoke openly about the Syrian army’s operations here – combating ISIS but also al Qaeda’s wing in Syria, al Nusra Front.
“The Russian intervention has been a blessing,” he said.
“They have helped us a great deal and in two ways – first of all there are the airstrikes themselves. But they also give us aerial intelligence, which allows us to conduct pre-emptive strikes as well.”
The UNESCO World Heritage Site is also on the main highway toward Deir Ezzor, Syria’s seventh-largest city, which is mostly in the hands of ISIS, but where government forces are holding out in an enclave.
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The United States and other Western powers have accused the Syrian government and its Russian backers of mostly fighting against moderate rebels, and putting little effort into operations against ISIS – a charge Moscow has denied.
But the general rejected those allegations and said his forces have firefights with ISIS militants every day. He acknowledged, however, that other military operations, such as the major offensive in Aleppo province, are a priority.
“Of course our operations are also dependent on the battlefields in Latakia and Aleppo,” he said.
“Right now the main priority is to seal the border with Turkey – to cut the supply lines of all the rebel groups.”
Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar-al-Assad has granted a general amnesty to military deserters, according to Syria’s state news agency SANA. The amnesty applies to deserters inside and outside the country, who left the military before February 17.
The battle lines in the area east of Aleppo are complicated. While the Syrian military’s fortifications are sometimes less than a mile away from ISIS areas to the east, forces also face pockets of al-Nusra resistance to the west.
The commander said he would welcome assistance in fighting ISIS, including from the United States and its allies.
At the same time he appeared cynical when asked about the current U.S. contribution to that battle.
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“America? Are they doing anything?” he asked. “I have not seen them make a contribution yet. On the contrary, they are the ones who made ISIS strong.”
To emphasize his point, he showed a photo of a U.S. Humvee, which he said ISIS had used in an assault on one of his bases. He said his troops took out the vehicle with a Russian-made missile.
As the artillery kept firing, I asked if and when he thought his forces would be able to oust ISIS from Syria.
“I cannot make any real predictions,” he said. “But if there is no foreign intervention from Saudi Arabia or Turkey, I think we can be in Raqqa city by the end of the year.”
At this point the general’s forces are still far away from achieving that goal and have a lot of desert terrain to cover.
But with Russia’s intervention in the five-year conflict, Syrian troops seem more confident than ever of taking on ISIS.