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Russia to send more warplanes to Syria

Moscow and Assad spurned a US-Russian brokered ceasefire agreed to this month and launched attacks on rebel-held areas in Aleppo in potentially the most decisive battle in the Syrian civil war. Photograph: (AFP)

Reuters Moscow, Russia Sep 30, 2016, 11.34 PM (IST)

Russia is sending more warplanes to Syria to ramp up its air campaign, a Russian newspaper reported on Friday, as the United States said diplomacy to halt the violence was "on life support" but not dead yet.

Fighting continued to intensify a week into a new Russian-backed Syrian government offensive to capture rebel-held eastern Aleppo and crush the last urban stronghold of a revolt against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that began in 2011.

Moscow and Assad spurned a US-Russian brokered ceasefire agreed to this month and launched attacks on rebel-held areas in Aleppo in potentially the most decisive battle in the Syrian civil war.

US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov spoke by telephone for a third straight day, with the top Russian diplomat saying Moscow was ready to consider more ways to normalise the situation in Aleppo. But Lavrov criticised Washington`s failure to separate moderate rebel groups from those the Russians call terrorists, which had allowed forces led by the group formerly known as the Nusra front to violate the US-Russian truce agreed on Sept. 9.

The United States made clear on Friday that it would not, for now, carry through on the threat it made on Wednesday to halt the diplomacy if Russia did not take immediate steps to halt the violence.

"This is on life support, but it's not flat-lined yet," state department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters, hinting that there may have been progress with Russia. "We have seen enough that we don`t want to definitively close the door yet."

No alternative to diplomacy?

US officials and analysts argued the White House has few alternatives. "If we do walk away from this diplomatic process, as ... moribund as it is, what are the options?" Toner asked.

"They can`t afford to," said Chas Freeman, a retired US ambassador. "You can`t do international business with silence and ostracism."

The White House put on hold proposals to end the talks despite the possibility that continuing them would erase whatever credibility Washington has on Syria and risk encouraging Assad and his Russian backers to continue the carnage. It also would leave the United States vulnerable to attacks that it failed to intervene to halt war crimes, proponents of ending the diplomacy argued, according to officials familiar with the internal discussions.

Options discussed include providing more sophisticated arms, logistical support, and training to Syrian rebel groups, though not shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, either directly or via Gulf Arab states or Turkey, these officials said. Another idea, they said, was to launch an air or cruise missile strike on a remote Syrian airbase, with a tentative list drawn up of what one official said was "slightly more than a dozen" Syrian airbases, barrel-bomb factories and other military targets.

However, senior officials concluded there is no alternative to leaving the door open to talks because any other course would risk provoking an open conflict with Russia.

Any US attack was ruled out early in the process as what another official called "a pointless escalation" that would risk killing or wounding some of the Russians who are intermingled with Syrian government forces in many locations.  "This leaves us with zero credibility in the Arab world and Turkey and no respect in Russia and beyond," said one frustrated official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"It’s another red line," the official added in an allusion to Obama’s threat to retaliate if Assad used chemical weapons, which he abruptly decided not to enforce in 2013.

SU-24 and SU-34 aircraft

Western countries accuse Russia of war crimes, saying it has deliberately targeted civilians, hospitals and aid deliveries in recent days to crush the will of 250,000 people trapped inside the besieged rebel-held sector of Aleppo, Syria`s biggest city before the war. Moscow and Damascus say they have targeted only militants. 

Russia joined the war a year ago, tipping the balance of power in favour of Assad, who is also supported by Iranian ground forces and Shi`ite militia from Lebanon and Iraq.

The Kremlin said on Friday there was no time frame for its military operation in Syria. The main result of Russian air strikes over the past year is that "neither Islamic State, nor al Qaeda nor the Nusra Front are now sitting in Damascus", Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Russia`s Izvestia newspaper reported that a group of Su-24 and Su-34 warplanes had arrived at Syria`s Hmeymim base.

"If need be, the air force group will be (further) built up within two to three days," it quoted a military official as saying. "Su-25 ground attack fighters designated to be sent to Hmeymim have already been selected in their units and their crews are on stand-by, awaiting orders from their commanders."

The Su-25 is an armoured twin-engine jet that was battle-tested in the 1980s during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. It can be used to strafe targets on the ground, or as a bomber.

Russia`s defence ministry did not immediately respond to a request from Reuters for comment. The US State and Defense Departments declined comment on the Izvestia report.

Western officials believe Moscow`s decision to spurn the latest truce signals it believes Assad can now win a decisive battlefield victory after years of mostly stalemated war that killed hundreds of thousands and made half of Syrians homeless.

Syrian government forces and rebels fought battles on Friday in the city centre and north of Aleppo, where government troops had recaptured a Palestinian refugee camp on Thursday that already had changed hands once since the start of the attack.

The sides gave conflicting accounts of the outcome of Friday`s fighting. North of the city, the military said it had captured territory around the Kindi hospital near the refugee camp. Rebel sources denied the army had advanced there.

In the city centre, the military said it had advanced in the Suleiman al-Halabi district. Rebel officials said troops had moved forward but had subsequently been forced to withdraw.
A Syrian military source said government forces captured several buildings in the area and were "continuing to chase the remnants of the terrorists fleeing them". One of the rebel officials said government forces had "advanced and then retreated", losing "a number of dead".

(Reuters)

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