Russia Launches Massive War Games; Defends Long-standing Support of Syrian President
September 17, 2015
PressTV & Alec Luhn / The Guardian & Shaun Walker and Ian Black / The Guardian & Mary Chastain / Breitbar.com
Russia has launched its largest military drill of the year in Syria, involving 7,000 items of military equipment and some 95,000 infantry, navy and air force units. Russian officials complained of a "strange hysteria" over Moscow's actions. Foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that "Russia has never made a secret of its military-technical cooperation with Syria" and insisted there was nothing out of the ordinary about their presence.
Russia Launches Biggest War Games of 2015
TEHERAN (September 14, 2015) -- Russia has launched its largest military drill of the year, involving 7,000 items of military equipment and some 95,000 infantry, navy and air force units.
"Today the strategic command-and-staff exercise Center–2015 has been started. This is a final stage of the operational and combat training of the Russian Armed Forces in 2015 and joint combat training activities of the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization)," the Russian Defense Ministry announced in a statement on Monday.
Center–2015 is being carried out over 20 sites across Russia's central military district (marked in light green in the map below), which spans from the Volga River to the Ural mountains and Siberia in the east and reaches to the country's far northern regions.
According to the statement, the maneuvers' goal is assessing the readiness of the CSTO, comprised of forces from several ex-Soviet countries, at handling "international armed conflict" and defeating "illegal armed units."
The extensive exercises, headed by the chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Valeriy Gerasimov, are scheduled to end on September 20.
Russia has recently cranked up its snap checks of its military capabilities, assessing its forces from the Arctic to the Far East as relations with the West sharply cooled after Crimea's reunification with Russia following a referendum in March 2014.
Relations were strained further after Ukraine launched military operations in April 2014 to silence pro-Russia protests in the mainly Russian-speaking regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine.
Kiev and its Western allies accuse the Kremlin of meddling in Ukraine's internal affairs and backing pro-Russia forces in eastern Ukraine. Russia has resolutely denied the claims.
Russia Sends Artillery and Tanks
To Syria as Part of Continued Military Buildup
Increase of Russian hardware in Syria has caused concerns in the west about the implications of Moscow militarily helping its old ally, President Bashar al-Assad
Alec Luhn / The Guardian
MOSCOW (September 14, 2015) -- Russia has sent tanks and artillery to Syria amid a reported military buildup, US officials say, raising concerns about a potential mission to bolster President Bashar al-Assad's embattled regime.
Moscow has sent artillery units and seven tanks to the Syrian airbase near Latakia on the Mediterranean coast as part of an ongoing military buildup, a US official told AFP on Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The source said the seven T-90s, Russia's most modern service tank, arrived in Latakia in the past few days but had not been seen outside the airbase. The artillery was likely for airfield defence, the source said.
"Hundreds" of Russian troops are already present in Latakia, and Moscow has installed enough mobile housing units to house about 1,500 people, the source added.
Also on Monday, navy captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said a "steady flow" of Russian personnel and military equipment to Latakia in recent days suggests Moscow plans to operate military aircraft from the base, AP reported. But the US has not yet seen any fighter jets or attack helicopters arrive, he said.
Although photographs and social media posts have shown Russian soldiers are in Syria, the Kremlin has maintained they are there as advisers. Russian military activity could conflict with the US-led coalition's airstrikes against Islamic State (Isis), potentially tying up airspace, US officials have said.
Davis said Washington would welcome Moscow's contributions to the effort against Isis, but that military assistance for Assad could "risk adding greater instability to an already unstable situation".
Russian officials have not commented on the alleged arrival of tanks and artillery. But the Syrian ambassador to Moscow, Riad Haddad, on Monday denied that Moscow was conducting a military buildup in Syria, calling news of a Russian troop presence "a lie". He said Syria was receiving arms from its ally under defence contracts, state news agency Tass reported.
"We have been cooperating with Russia for 30-40 years in various areas, including the military sphere. Yes, we receive arms, military equipment, all this is done in line with agreements sealed between our countries," Haddad said.
"But the talk of your (Russian) troop presence on the Syrian territory is a lie spread by western countries, the United States."
Last week, foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia continues to send military equipment and advisers to Syria, but said this was only as part of arms deals and not an expeditionary force.
"Our soldiers and military specialists are located there to service Russian equipment, cooperate with the Syrian army in using this equipment," Lavrov told journalists on Thursday.
But on Saturday state television Channel One showed two Russian military cargo planes delivering what it said was 50 tonnes of humanitarian aid to Syria.
Russia is suspected of having delivered arms and ammunition to separatists in eastern Ukraine in truck convoys that it insists are carrying humanitarian aid.
Russia was sending groceries, children's food and "everything necessary to equip a big new tent camp", the Channel One news anchor said as footage showed Russian soldiers loading canvas, tent stakes and wooden crates into the aircraft.
On Sunday, bloggers posted photos of the Nikolay Filchenko, an Alligator-class landing ship reportedly in service with Russia's Black Sea fleet, passing through what appeared to be the Turkish straits. Green camouflage netting was covering part of its deck, leading to speculation of a military shipment.
The US-based intelligence-gathering company Stratfor last week last week published satellite imagery of construction on the Bassel al Assad international airport in Latakia, Syria, that it said was evidence of the Russian military "establishing a base of operations" and preparing to deploy aircraft to Syria, if it has not already done so.
Among the changes made to the airport as of 4 September were runway improvements, two additional helicopter pads, a new taxiway, a new air traffic control station and mobile housing.
On Monday, President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied reports that Moscow was engaged in secret negotiations about Assad's political future with Washington.
It had previously been reported that an agreement might see Assad temporarily remain president while a provisional government was formed with representatives of the opposition. Peskov reiterated Russia's support for Assad, but didn't address the issue of military aid.
"For now no one can clearly explain what could be the alternative to the current legitimate Syrian government in terms of the country's security, the struggle against the spread of the Islamic State, the unity of the country," Peskov told journalists.
More than 240,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in 2011, and swaths of the country have fallen under the control of Isis.
Russia Complains of 'Strange Hysteria'
Over its Presence in Syria
Moscow responds to concerns from US by saying its military-technical cooperation with Syria is nothing out of the ordinary
Shaun Walker and Ian Black / The Guardian
MOSCOW and DAMASCUS (September 9. 2015) -- Russia's foreign ministry has complained of a "strange hysteria" over Moscow's actions in Syria, as western countries expressed concerns over apparent preparations for military intervention.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that "Russia has never made a secret of its military-technical cooperation with Syria" and confirmed that "Russian military specialists are in Syria to help them master the weapons being supplied". She said there was nothing out of the ordinary about their presence.
However, there have been a number of signs of more intensive Russian activity in Syria in recent weeks, including reported sightings of Russian jets and combat vehicles, claims of increased weapons deliveries, and even reports that prefabricated housing was being erected to pave the way for a major military presence.
A number of photographs have been posted to social media networks from Tartus in eastern Syria by men who appear to be Russian contract soldiers.
The Tartus naval base, which Russia has maintained since the 1970s, was previously a small and low-significance maintenance outpost, but has seen increased activity recently.
The reports of growing Russian military activity in Syria were troubling, Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said on Wednesday. "I am concerned about reports about increased Russian military presence in Syria," Stoltenberg said. "That will not contribute to solving the conflict."
Russia has insisted there is nothing out of the ordinary about the military assistance to the country, and Syrian government officials have also been playing down recent reports about an enhanced Russian military role, but insisting that Moscow remains a supportive ally.
"Russian experts are always present but in the last year they have been present to a greater degree," a Syrian official told Reuters. "All aspects of the relationship are currently being developed, including the military one."
President Bashar al-Assad did not comment on the question when it was raised by Russian journalists who interviewed him in Damascus on Sunday. But on the diplomatic front, western officials in fact say they detect signs of greater readiness by Moscow to push for a negotiated solution to the Syrian crisis -- in part because of its growing concerns about the threat from Islamic State.
Putin is due to travel to the UN general assembly for the first time in a decade later this month, and some analysts speculate he may try to use the current concert over Isis and the refugee crisis to call for an international coalition against terrorism, involving Russia.
"If additional measures in the interests of boosting anti-terrorism efforts are required on our part, this issue will be considered accordingly, but exclusively on the basis of international law and Russian legislature," Zakharova said.
Moscow denounced as "international boorishness" a move by Nato member Bulgaria to deny overflight rights to Russian planes travelling to Syria. Moscow says the planes contain humanitarian aid.
On Wednesday Iran granted permission for Russian planes to overfly its territory on their way to Syria.
"We've indicated that the United States is concerned by reports that Russia may have deployed additional military personnel and aircraft to Syria," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Tuesday.
On Saturday, the US State Department announced that the secretary of state, John Kerry, had spoken by telephone to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, and warned against expanding Russian military assistance to Syria.
Kerry said the moves risked further inflaming the conflict and worsening the current refugee crisis, the State Department said.
But Russia's role in Syria is being eclipsed to some extent by Iran's. In recent months Tehran has pushed Assad to follow a policy of retrenchment, accepting that parts of the country are now lost to his enemies and that he should consolidate his control over the area around Damascus and a strip running through Homs to the Mediterranean coast.
On Wednesday, Syrian state TV reported that insurgents led by Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida's Syrian affiliate, had captured an airbase after a two-year siege, leaving almost the entire northern province of Idlib free of government forces.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said insurgents had captured the Abu Zuhour base under the cover of the severe sandstorm that has raged across the country for the previous three days.
Insurgents now control nearly the entire province, except for the predominantly Shia villages of Foua and Kfarya, which are in the hands of pro-government militia.
Fighting is continuing meanwhile for Zabadani, north-west of Damascus, a strategic position for Assad's Lebanese ally Hezbollah. Talks on a ceasefire there have included a proposal that the town's defenders -- from the Sunni Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham -- be exchanged for the Shias of the two Idlib villages. This proposal is seen by some observers as introducing an explicitly sectarian element into the Syrian conflict.
Russia to US: Help Us Help Syria
Or Face 'Unintended Consequences'
Mary Chastain / Breitbar.com
(September 14, 2015) -- The Russian government sent humanitarian aid to Syria over the weekend, only a few days after officials demanded US cooperation to avoid "unintended consequences."
The Associated Press reported Russian military planes landed in Syria with humanitarian aid for over 1,000 refugees. According to Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, planes contained items "for setting up a tent camp, including beds, mattresses, stoves, water cisterns and food."
Russian President Vladimir Putin jumped to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's aid when the country dived into a civil war four years ago. The Syrian National Coalition lashed out at the move because they believe it is a "direct Russian military intervention."
"The direct Russian military intervention will not lead to the regime's rescue, give it legitimacy or rehabilitate it," declared the coalition.
The group also said this behavior "puts Moscow in a position that is 'hostile to the Syrian people and turns its forces in Syria to occupation forces.'"
But tensions remain high between the US and Russia since Syrian television broadcasted Russian troops alongside Syrian troops earlier this month. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Secretary of State John Kerry spoke on the phone two times to discuss the matter.
On Friday, Russia told the US to talk with them about Syria to avoid any "unintended incidents." The Mediterranean island of Cyprus confirmed the Russian government "informed it of live-fire naval exercises to be conducted off Syria." The US and Russian forces in Syria are not speaking to each other, even though both admit radical jihadist groups like the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) are their common enemy.
"Coalition forces are focused on conducting counter-ISIL operations, and so to my knowledge there is no military-to-military contact at this point," explained Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder, adding:
We're keeping an eye on the Russian situation there, but right now again there's really no deconfliction to do. I think what you're getting at is: [deconfliction] in the event there's some type of Russian military or air activity, but again, I'm not going to speculate or talk about hypotheticals. Certainly, we have very professional air forces, and the coalition is going to ensure the safety of those forces where we operate.
President Barack Obama claimed Russian movements will not change "strategy in countering Islamic State fighters."
"But we are going to be engaging Russia to let them know that you can't continue to double-down on a strategy that is doomed to failure," he announced.
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