Russian 'advisers' train new Syrian battalion

Yafour (Syria) (AFP) - Wearing clean bullet-proof vests and knee pads, fighters from a new Syrian amy battalion showcase the skills they have learned from Russia's military advisers.

In the countryside west of Damascus, the soldiers carry out a mock assault, fire mortar rounds and rockets, perform mine-clearing and first aid exercises.

Large clouds of dust rise over the training camp as troops in camouflage fatigue open fire.

In the afternoon sun, top brass from both countries and dozens of journalists, including an AFP team invited from Moscow, are looking on.

"We sacrifice our blood for you Bashar," the soldiers chant in unison, throwing their fists in the air, in praise of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

With military backing from Russia, Assad's forces have retaken large parts of Syria from rebels and jihadists since 2015, and now control around 60 percent of the country.

Russia often refers to troops it deployed in Syria as military "advisers" even though its forces and warplanes are also directly involved in battles against jihadists and other rebels.

On Tuesday, Russian advisers appeared in front of cameras, wearing green face masks and sunglasses, in a rare display of Moscow's military operations in war-torn Syria.

With the help of an Arabic translator, an adviser instructed troops on how to detect and defuse mines, while another trained them on treating war injuries.

- Eyes on Idlib -

"The battalion was created on August 10 and started training that same day," said Omar Mohamed, who heads this new elite force.

"Thanks to the Russian advisers, the level of preparation among soldiers has increased and they know how to use all types of weapons," he told AFP.

After undergoing two months of individual military training, members of the force will now learn to operate in large groups.

The commanders do not rule out the possibility that troops could deploy to the last major opposition redoubt, Idlib in the northwest.

A deal Russia and rebel-backer Turkey reached last year was meant to prevent a bloodbath in the jihadist-run region, but bombardment re-started in late April.

Since August 31, a separate Russian-backed ceasefire has largely held, despite sporadic strikes.

But Damascus has repeatedly vowed to take back all of Syrian territory, including the Idlib region.

"We pin our hopes on a political solution, but if we do not see results, we will then resort to the military option," one commander told reporters.

General Hassan Hassan, head of the Syrian army's political administration division, is more definitive.

"Idlib will be liberated in all cases" he said.

"We will see each other there soon," he told reporters.

The Syrian conflict has killed more than 370,000 people and driven millions from their homes since it started with the brutal repression of anti-government protests in 2011.