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Assad: Army winning on 'nearly every front' thanks to Russian strikes

Syrian president's claim comes after Turkey said 1,500 members of Syria's Turkmen minority had fled fighting in Syria's northwest
President Bashar al-Assad during his latest international TV interview (SANA / AFP)

Syrian government troops are advancing on "nearly every front" thanks to Russian air strikes that began in September, President Bashar al-Assad said in an interview released on Sunday.

The embattled president also said he favoured new peace talks to be hosted in Moscow, but stressed that the Syrian conflict could not be resolved without "defeating terrorism".

However, the Russian air strikes have been criticised for not doing enough to protect civilians.

Russian air strikes in Syria have killed 403 civilians, among them 97 children, according to figures released by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group. The figures could not be independently verified, but human rights groups have widely called for investigations into civilian deaths.

Turkey has expressed concern in recent days over Russian air raids in the area, fearing they are aimed at hitting Syrian opposition fighters and bolstering Assad's government.

Assad’s interview came after Turkey said that some 1,500 members of Syria's Turkmen minority had fled to the Turkish border to escape renewed fighting in Syria's northwest, a Turkish official said on Sunday.

The Turkish governor of the southern province of Hatay, Ercan Topaca, said tent cities were being erected to cater for the latest increase in arrivals.

"We are trying to determine how many people will come to Turkey. Almost 15 Turkmen villages [home to about 35,000 people including ethnic Arabs] were in the zone where the clashes [between Syrian government and opposition forces] happened,” Topaca said. “Our Turkmen brothers - living close to clashes - arrived at the tent cities. If the clashes become intense in upcoming days, we think that more people will come, and we are making plans for their migration.”

Turkmen are a Turkic ethnic group based largely in Syria and Iraq, where they live alongside large Arab and Kurdish populations. The Turkmen community, which includes both Sunni and Shia Muslims, shares close cultural ties with the Turkish people.

On Saturday, Turkmen fighters backed by Turkey launched their own ground operation in northern Syria to retake territory controlled by Islamic State (IS).

Over the border in Iraq, Turkmen regions in the north have also been subjected to recent fighting, even though the Islamic State has been pushed out.

A leading Iraqi Turkmen figure on Saturday told Anadolu Agency that his community felt under threat from clashes between the Iraqi government’s Shia al-Hashd al-Shaabi militia and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters.

"They are playing games on the Turkmen territory ... and the biggest one [game] has started in Tuz Khormato," Ershad Salihi - leader of the Iraqi Turkmen Front – said, referring to a town south of Kirkuk.

His remarks followed a meeting of Turkmen lawmakers with Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi in Baghdad.

"We discussed the developments on our territory after it was saved from Daesh, and the situation of Turkmen refugees in Kirkuk, Tal Afar, Tuz Khormato, Diyala and southern Iraq," he said.

Salihi said meetings would be held with Kurdish and Arab politicians in the area to find a solution to the tension in the troubled district of Tuz Khormato.

Turkey says it has taken in a total of 2.2 million refugees from Syria's more than four-year civil war and still maintains an "open door policy", while warning that its capacity to take more is limited.