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  1. ITV Report

Near the Syrian frontline, ITV News is shown how Russia's military is altering the bloody civil war

ITV News has gained a rare insight into Russia's involvement in the Syrian war, joining a convoy to a frontline in the bloody civil war.

Correspondent Dan Rivers travelled with heavily-armed Russian special forces, who only last week helped secure the strategically-important hilltop town of Salma for their ally, President Bashar al-Assad.

Assad's forces have been able to retain some grip thanks to Russian help. Credit: ITV News

Russia's air force was seen as crucial in recapturing the north-western town, so much so that Assad's government took the step of publicly thanking them for their support.

Thousands of missions have been carried since Vladimir Putin authorised bombing campaigns over the country in September.

A Syrian soldier tells Dan Rivers his forces are fighting IS and al-Nusra Front less than a mile away. Credit: ITV News

Many nations, including Britain, have expressed concern about the attacks - claiming that hundreds of civilians are among the thousands thought to have been killed by the airstrikes.

In Salma, there is evidence of the ferocity of Russian assaults everywhere - with buildings gutted and fears that many buildings remain booby-trapped.

Gutted buildings are testament to the ferocity of Russian bombing. Credit: ITV News

However, discovering the extent of civilian casualties there is not easy. A doctor in the town said hospital services had resumed, but there was no information available about those hurt and killed during the fighting.

One of the Syrian soldiers who helped recapture the town told Rivers he and his crew were little over half a mile away from the front, where fighting against radical Islamists so-called Islamic State and al-Nusra Front continued to rage.

Salma, in north-west Syria, is now among the Assad-held territory in Syria (marked in gold). Credit: ITV News

While accounts differ on how long Salma has been in rebel hands - the soldier says five years, but a Russian general claimed it was more like three - it's clear that the town has been in the sights of Putin's forces since they entered the conflict.

And it's not just from the air that Russia is altering the course of the war - its enormous Varyag cruiser has been part of a huge Navy presence firing guided missiles at rebel positions from the safety of the sea.

Russia's Varyag missile cruiser off the coast of Syria. Credit: ITV News

But despite the clear influence the former Soviet nation is having, the years-long civil war remains bitterly deadlocked.

As a result, it is thought Assad may need more Russian boots on the ground if it is to move decisively in his favour.