France has said it will deploy an aircraft carrier to strike against the so-called "Islamic State" in Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile, a jihadist rebel faction has taken control of a strategic highway town in Syria.
France will deploy the nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier to fight the "Islamic State," adding to six Rafaele jets in the United Arab Emirates and six Mirage jets in Jordan.
The flagship of the French navy last deployed to the Persian Gulf for two months in February, from where about 20 aircraft launched 10 to 15 sorties per day. It is usually accompanied by a carrier group, including submarines, frigates and support ships.
The aircraft carrier's deployment will be the first since France started launching airstrikes on the "Islamic State" in Syria in October. France has carried out nearly 1,300 missions in Iraq, hitting 459 targets in 271 airstrikes. It has carried out only two airstrikes in Syria.
Blow to Assad regime
The French announcement comes the same day as Russia said it has deployed anti-aircraft missile systems to Syria to protect its assets. Moscow has deployed tanks, artillery, aircraft and advisers to bolster the regime forces.
But in a major blow to Damascus on Thursday, Russian air support combined with Iranian militias, Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and Iraqi Shiite militias, all backing regime forces on the ground, failed to prevent jihadists from taking a key town on a road in Hama province in central Syria.
Jund al-Aqsa, a jihadist faction, was reported by a monitoring group to have taken Morek on the main highway between Aleppo to the north and Hama to the south.
The monitoring group, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said airstrikes and clashes continue in and around the town. It was unclear if the airstrikes were being carried out by Russia or Syrian aircraft.
Regime makes patchy gains
The regime offensive struck a victory on Wednesday, when its forces recaptured from the "Islamic State" an alternative route to the areas under its control in Aleppo, which has been split between government forces and rebels groups for several years.
The capture of the road, severed by the "Islamic State" last month, reportedly allowed trucks of food to reach thousands of civilians in regime-controlled neighborhoods.
Since launching a major offensive last month, backed by Russian airstrikes, the Syrian regime has made patchy gains in Aleppo, Hama and Homs.
The offensive appears to be an effort to create a rump state running from Aleppo in the north, through the strategic towns of Hama and Homs, south to Damascus and the Lebanese border, and to the regime's heartland along the coast.
Rebel factions are reportedly slowing regime advances on several fronts after Saudi Arabia upped the supply of US-made anti-tank TOW missiles.
The fighting comes amid renewed international diplomacy to engineer an end to the conflict and bring about a political transition.
cw/rc (AFP, AP, Reuters)