Wednesday 28 September 2016

Assad: Putin campaign in Syria has averted tragedy

Roland Oliphant

Published 22/10/2015 | 02:30

Russian president Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Bashar al-Assad during the Syrian president’s surprise visit to Moscow on Tuesday evening when the two leaders met at the Kremlin
Russian president Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Bashar al-Assad during the Syrian president’s surprise visit to Moscow on Tuesday evening when the two leaders met at the Kremlin

Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, flew into Moscow for surprise talks with Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin has said.

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Mr Assad and Mr Putin held "extended" talks regarding Russian military support for Mr Assad's regime following an invitation from the Kremlin.

"Naturally, the questions [regarded] the fight against terrorist extremist groups, questions regarding the continuation of supporting offensive actions of the Syrian armed forces," Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin's spokesman, told Russian agencies.

Details of the talks, which were also attended by Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, and Sergei Shoigu, the defence minister, have not been released.

But in a transcript of opening remarks released by the Kremlin yesterday, both leaders referred to a "political" settlement that must follow their joint military campaign.

Mr Assad expressed "deep gratitude" for Mr Putin's support during the civil war, in which he has lost control of four fifths of Syria's territory over four years of fighting.

"Above all, the political steps taken by the Russian Federation since the state of the crisis have prevented events in Syria enveloping into a more tragic scenario," he said, according to a transcript posted on the Kremlin's website.

"Of course, we all know that any military action must be followed by political steps. Of course, our common goal is to bring about the vision the Syrian people have of their own country's future," he added.

Mr Putin, in turn, said the recent military campaign had achieved "major positive results," but the crisis in Syria can only be resolved "politically".

"We proceed from the assumption that if the military situation improves, a long-term settlement can be achieved on the basis of political process with the participation of all political, ethnic, and religious groups," he said.

Mr Putin said that Russia's military intervention was partly prompted by fears that "at least 4,000" citizens of former Soviet countries who have joined anti-government forces in Syria may one day return to fight in Russia.

Russia has provided supplies of weapons, military advice, and diplomatic support to Mr Assad's government since the war in Syria began in 2011. Mr Putin launched direct military intervention, in the form of airstrikes, three weeks ago.

It was Mr Assad's first overseas trip since he visited Paris in 2010, and the only time he has left the country since it was plunged into civil war in 2011.

Russia launched airstrikes in support of Mr Assad's forces three weeks ago, in a bid to turn back dramatic rebel gains earlier this year.

Syrian ground forces, bolstered by Iranian troops and fighters from Hezbollah, are currently attempting to push rebels back near Aleppo, Damascus, and Hama.

Mr Shoigu said Russian intervention has already handed momentum to government forces and promises that airstrikes would continue.

"With our air support, Syrian government forces have moved from the defensive to the offensive and liberated part of the territory controlled by Isil insurgents," Mr Shoigu said in comments to the Russian press yesterday.

"We plan to continue to assist the legitimate government of Syria and to create conditions for the settlement of the conflict," he added.

Western and Russian commentators have suggested that the Russian and Iranian objective is to inflict a significant defeat on rebel forces in western Syria so that Mr Assad can negotiate a settlement from a position of strength.

It is unclear whether the Kremlin is willing to assist Mr Assad in the more ambitious goal of retaking all of Syrian territory, the overwhelming bulk of which is now controlled by competing factions including anti-government rebels, Syrian Kurds, and the Isil terror group.

Russia has also employed military instructors and advisors, but Vladimir Putin has so far ruled out sending regular Russian ground troops to bolster Mr Assad's forces, apparently wary of repeating the Soviet Union's disastrous entanglement in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

But after four years of war Mr Assad is short of man power, and some observers have speculated that the Kremlin may send unofficial "volunteers" or private military contractors to back up government troops on the battle field.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group, said yesterday that three Russian volunteers had been killed by shelling near Latakia.

The Russian ministry of defence said no Russian Federation forces servicemen had been killed in Syria. (© Daily Telegraph London)

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