BEIRUT — Syrian government troops backed by Russian airstrikes recaptured a town in Aleppo province from Islamic State militants on Thursday in a key advance just two days ahead of a U.S. and Russia-engineered cease-fire that is set to take effect in Syria.
In the rebel-held suburb of Daraya, opposition activists said the army escalated its attacks, dropping dozens of barrel bombs from helicopters on the devastated town located a few kilometers southwest of the Syrian capital, sending plumes of smoke rising into the sky.
Russia and the United States have set a deadline of midnight on Friday for the temporary cease-fire to take effect between the Syrian government and opposition forces. But fighting is expected to continue in many places, because the deal excludes groups deemed terrorist by the U.N. Security Council including Islamic State and the al-Qaida branch in Syria, the Nusra Front.
The town of Khanaser captured by the army Thursday was seized earlier this week by the Islamic State group, cutting state forces’ access to the provincial capital, also called Aleppo, said the Syrian government and the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition monitoring group.
SANA said the army took Khanaser, around 50 kilometers (30 miles) southeast of Aleppo city, after three days of heavy battles and that intense fighting was still underway to reopen the road. On Tuesday, IS seized Khanaser and surrounding hills, severing the government’s main land route to the city.
In the push on Khanaser, the Syrian army and pro-government Shiite militias were backed by Russian airstrikes, The Observatory said.
The cease-fire meant to start on midnight Friday is aimed at achieving a temporary “cessation of hostilities” that would bring back the Syrian government and its opponents to the negotiating table in Geneva.
The U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said he will convene the first meeting of a task force meant to monitor the cease-fire. Speaking to reporters Thursday in Geneva, he predicted a “crucial” day ahead of the start of the truce brokered by the United States and Russia.
The Syrian opposition has agreed to abide by the truce but expressed major concerns and reservations about what it said were ambiguities and the lack of any clear mechanism to implement the agreement.
Turkey’s prime minister echoed those concerns on Thursday, saying he is worried that Russia will continue to hit Syrian civilians or the moderate opposition during the truce. Ahmet Davutoglu has accused Russia of striking the moderate opposition in Syria over the past five months under the guise of hitting militants.
Davutoglu said the cease-fire would have “no meaning if Russia continues with its irresponsible bombings.”
Meanwhile, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told state-run Anadolu Agency that Saudi aircraft would arrive “today or tomorrow” at the Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey to join the fight against Islamic State in Syria. Cavusoglu did not say how many planes Saudi Arabia would be sending to the base.
A key element of the cease-fire deal is humanitarian access to besieged and hard-to-reach areas across Syria. The United Nations announced the first high-altitude airdrop of 21 metric tons of aid Wednesday over the city of Deir el-Zour, which is under siege from Islamic State extremists. But the World Food Program said later it faced “technical difficulties” and indicated the drop may have been off target.
In a further reflection of the complicated terrain across Syria’s zigzagging front lines, Davutoglu also warned Syria’s main Kurdish militia, a U.S.-backed group that has been fighting the Islamic State, against taking advantage of the truce for actions that threaten Turkey’s security.
Turkey would respond to such actions and will not be bound by the cease-fire agreement, the Turkish premier said.
Ankara considers the Syrian Kurdish group, known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, a terror organization because of its links to Turkey’s own Kurdish rebels and has been shelling its positions inside Syria along the border with Turkey, particularly in the northwestern region of Afrin. Kurdish officials have called for the group to be added to those excluded from the truce agreement.