Tuesday 20 February 2018

Russia says it's close to Aleppo deal with US

Russian minister Sergei Shoigu
Russian minister Sergei Shoigu

Roland Oliphant

Russia and the United States are on the brink of forming a military alliance to carry out joint operations in Syria, Moscow claimed yesterday.

"We are now in a very active phase of negotiations with our American colleagues," Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defence minister, said in comments broadcast on state television.

"We are moving step by step closer to a plan - and I'm only talking about Aleppo here - that would really allow us to start fighting together to bring peace so people can return to their homes in this troubled land."

A Pentagon spokesman played down Mr Shoigu's comments, however, saying no deal is imminent and that there is "nothing in play". The United States is believed to have offered Russia a military alliance against groups both sides consider terrorists last month.

The proposed deal, laid out in a document leaked to the 'Washington Post', would result in the countries working together to attack Isil, but also al-Qa'ida-aligned Jabhat al-Nusra jihadists, who have been locked in fierce battles with the regime.

The proposals were controversial because the former Cold War foes support opposing sides in the conflict, with Russia bombing in support of the Syrian government, and the US arming and training rebels.

The nascent deal was further strained in June, after Russia bombed a base used by British and US special forces. Jabhat al-Nusra cut its ties with al-Qa'ida and renamed itself Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in late July, apparently to deflect pressure from Washington and Moscow. The group is playing a key role in the intensifying battle for Aleppo, the north-western city that has been a stronghold of the anti-Assad uprising since war broke out in 2011.

Meanwhile, Syrian troops repelled a rebel advance near Aleppo yesterday, forcing opposition forces to retreat from positions they seized a day earlier as heavy fighting continued in the country's largest city.

Russia has been launching air strikes in support of President Assad's forces for nearly a year, and Syrian and Russian warplanes have stepped up their raids in recent days in Aleppo and the rebel-held Idlib province nearby.

The Isil group, meanwhile, claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that struck a bus transporting rebels through a border crossing between Syria's opposition-held Idlib province and Turkey late on Sunday, killing more than 30 fighters.

The Atmeh border post is one of several crossings Syrian rebels use to bring in fighters and supplies. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the death toll from the bombing rose to 32. The rebel assault on Sunday targeted army positions at a cement factory southwest of Aleppo. But opposition activists said yesterday the insurgents retreated following a massive government counterattack.

Irish Independent

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