By NATALIYA VASILYEVA
ALEPPO, Syria (AP) — Russia’s military said Tuesday that Syrian troops have liberated about 85 percent of the war-torn country’s territory from militants, a major turn-around two years after Moscow intervened to lend a hand to its embattled long-time ally.
Russia has been providing air cover for President Bashar Assad’s troops since 2015, changing the tide of the war and giving Syrian and allied troops an advantage over opposition fighters and Islamic State group militants.
Speaking to reporters at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria’s province of Latakia, Lt. Gen. Alexander Lapin said the Syrian government still must clear the militants who hold approximately 27,000 square kilometers (10,425 square miles), the remaining 15 percent.
The reporters were later flown to Aleppo city, which opposition fighters lost to the Syrian government in late 2016, and where Russian military police patrol parts of the city.
Syrian troops, along with strong support from Iranian-backed ground fighters, have in recent weeks pushed IS militants out of central Homs province, near the border with Lebanon, and are now fighting them in the oil-rich Deir el-Zour province in the east.
Deir el-Zour is the last major IS holdout in Syria and the Syrian campaign, backed by Russian air power, broke a nearly three-year-old siege on the provincial capital where troops had been encircled by IS militants.
But activists said civilians are bearing the brunt of the offensive amid intensive airstrikes and IS taking them as human shields. An overnight airstrike hit recently displaced Syrians from Deir el-Zour on the western side of the Euphrates River, killing at least eight civilians.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Omar Abu Laila, who runs a group that monitors developments in Deir el-Zour, said the airstrikes were suspected to be from Russian aircraft.
At the height of its strength, IS controlled nearly half of Syria, seizing mostly territories in the east and north of Syria.
Around Syria, there are still pockets of other insurgents, some backed by Turkey and others by the U.S., in the northwest and north as well as in the south and near the capital. Militants affiliated with al-Qaida control Idlib province, near the border with Turkey.
Russian air power has been instrumental in recent Syrian military successes. With Damascus facing major battlefield defeats, Moscow signed a deal with the Syrian government in August 2015 to deploy an air…