THU 21 - 3 - 2019
Jun 8, 2018
The Daily Star
Putin: Will stay in Syria as long as beneficial
MOSCOW / LONDON / BEIRUT: Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that Russian forces would remain in Syria as long as it was in Moscow’s interests, despite earlier announcing Russia’s mission in the war-torn country had been largely completed.
“Our military is there to ensure Russia’s interests in an important region of the world,” Putin said in a response to a question during an annual televised phone-in with the Russian public. “They will stay there as long as it is beneficial to Russia and to ensure our international obligations. We are not planning to withdraw yet.”
But, Putin added, “We are not building long-term installations there and if necessary can withdraw our servicemen quite quickly without any material losses.”
Syria is Russia’s only military foothold in the Middle East, using leased facilities for ships at Tartous and for an air base in Hmeimim.
Putin didn’t elaborate on under what circumstances Russia could leave or on Moscow’s broader strategy for Syria. The president said the continued presence of Russian troops in the country would provide “invaluable experience” in the testing of new Russian weapons.
But he added that large-scale hostilities had ceased and a peaceful settlement was on the agenda.
The Kremlin first launched airstrikes in Syria in September 2015 in its biggest Middle East intervention in decades, turning the tide of the conflict in President Bashar Assad’s favor.
In December last year, Putin made a surprise visit to Russia’s Hmeimim airbase in Syria’s Latakia, and declared Russia’s mission accomplished, ordering a “significant part” of its contingent to start withdrawing. No significant Russian withdrawal has been apparent.
In other developments, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Thursday warned that Assad was “no longer immune” from retaliation. Noting that Israel had stayed out of Syria’s protracted civil war, in which Tehran backs Assad, Netanyahu said increasing Iranian encroachment required “a new calculus.”
“[Assad] is no longer immune, his regime is no longer immune. If he fires at us, as we’ve just demonstrated, we will destroy his forces,” the Israeli leader said at an event organized by the Policy Exchange think tank in London.
“Syria has to understand that Israel will not tolerate the Iranian military entrenchment in Syria against Israel,” Netanyahu added.
“The consequences are not merely to the Iranian forces there but to the Assad regime as well,” he said, adding, “I think it’s something that he should consider very seriously.”
Meanwhile the head of a local military council said Thursday no Turkish troops or allied Syrian fighters will deploy inside the strategic Syrian town of Manbij following a Turkish-U.S. deal that is expected to see the local U.S.-backed Kurdish militia pull out of the area.
The comments by the head of the Manbij Military Council, who goes by the name Mohammad Abu Adel, came following his meeting with a U.S. delegation to the town that included the commander of the U.S.-backed coalition Maj. Gen. James Jarrard and veteran Middle East diplomat William Roebuck. Abu Adel said the delegation told his council that details of the U.S.-Turkey deal are still being firmed up, and that they will keep the local council and the U.S.-backed leadership in Manbij updated.He said according to details discussed with the U.S. delegation, joint U.S.-Turkish patrols would only take place along already-delineated front lines between the strategic town and other Turkish-controlled areas to the west.
“If the patrols are only on the front lines, we don’t have a problem with that,” Abu Adel said. “But not inside the town.”
Ilham Ahmad, a senior Kurdish official, said the U.S. delegation gave guarantees that no Turkish or Turkey-backed Syrian forces would enter Manbij. She didn’t elaborate.
There was no immediate comment from the U.S-led coalition.
Abu Adel called the deal “political” and meant to deal with the balance of power in northern Syria, but didn’t elaborate.
He said there would be no changes to the local military council he heads, suggesting that changes may come in the local civil administration.
Asked if his council has made any demands in the talks between the U.S. and Turkey, Abu Adel said: “We are all right. We want nothing and if we are left alone, we will be all right.”
On the ground, Daesh (ISIS) militants killed at least 17 pro-regime fighters including six soldiers in surprise attacks in southern Syria, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Nine militants also lost their lives in the assaults in the desert of the southern province of Swaida, the observatory said. They were the first attacks of their kind in the area, where no Daesh presence had been noted in more than a year, observatory head Rami Abdel-Rahman said. The 17 pro-regime combatants killed also included nine Iranians and fighters belonging to pro-Iran Shiite militias, as well as two unidentified fighters, he said.
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