NATO Slams Russia's 'Troubling Escalation' in Syria

NATO Slams Russia's 'Troubling Escalation' in Syria

The head of NATO slammed Russia's "troubling escalation" of military activities in Syria, a day after Moscow launched cruise missiles as part of an intensified air campaign against Syrian rebels.

Jens Stoltenberg made the comments Thursday as he arrived for a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, where Russia's intervention in the Syrian civil war is expected to be high on the agenda.

The issue took on more importance after reports this week that Russian jets involved in the Syrian air raids violated the airspace of Turkey, a member of the United States-backed military alliance.

"NATO is ready and able to defend all allies, including Turkey, against any threats," Stoltenberg said. "NATO has already responded by increasing our capacity, our ability, to deploy forces including to the south, including in Turkey."

Syria 'much more dangerous'

NATO ministers will use Thursday's meeting to try to come up with ways to de-escalate the crisis, British Defense Minister Michael Fallon said, adding that Moscow is "making a serious situation in Syria much more dangerous."

"The single most helpful thing Russia could do is use its influence to stop [Syrian President] Assad from barrel-bombing its own civilians," Fallon told reporters before heading into the meeting.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who also is participating in the talks, on Wednesday offered a harsh critique of the Russian military campaign, and vowed Washington will not coordinate with Moscow on the matter.

"Russia has the wrong strategy – they continue to hit targets that are not ISIL," Carter said, referring to an acronym for the Islamic State group, which controls large parts of Syria. "We believe this is a fundamental mistake."

Fears of US-Russia clash

Russia insists its air bombardments primarily target the Islamist extremist group and its allies. But the U.S. has said many of the strikes have targeted other rebel groups, including some supported by Washington.

The U.S. is also carrying out its own airstrikes against certain Syrian rebel groups, and there are concerns that the two countries' warplanes could cross paths as a result of miscommunication.

"What we will do is continue basic, technical discussions on the professional safety procedures for our pilots flying about Syria," said Carter, who ruled out any more extensive cooperation.

Russia on Wednesday ramped up its air campaign in Syria with heavy aerial bombardments and, for the first time, cruise missile strikes, in support of a major ground operation by the Syrian military.

It is unclear how much, if any, progress the ground offensive had made by Thursday.

Weakened IS

Syrian Army General Ali Abdullah Ayoub said Thursday the Russian airstrikes have weakened the Islamic State group. He announced the beginning of a large-scale attack aimed at "liberating areas and towns which have been suffering the woes and crimes of terrorism."


Russian Tanks, Iranian-trained Militias Headed to Syria

Russia is adding to its barrage on rebel forces in Syria, sending in more firepower in the form of an additional Russian battalion armed with advanced tanks and artillery while punching ahead on the ground in central and western parts of the country with an Iranian-trained force that could number 10,000 or more.

A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the start of the ground campaign Wednesday, saying the Syrian army began an offensive “with our fire support,” including the launch of cruise missiles from Russian warships in the Caspian Sea.

The Russian moves were quickly criticized by U.S. officials, one intelligence official telling VOA that the use of cruise missiles, in particular, was just “part of Putin’s propaganda campaign.”

“It sends a message to domestic audiences that Russia is a player,” the official said.  “It sends a message to the coalition that it is willing to use a broad range of capabilities to prop up the regime.”

The White House also warned Wednesday Moscow’s Syria strategy was likely to be counterproductive though others took a more somber view.

“They are postured to assert their influence," a U.S. official told VOA on condition of anonymity when asked about Russia’s expanded operations.

U.S. defense officials had estimated that until recently Russia had only about 500 naval infantrymen on the ground, most at the Bassan al-Assad airbase near Latakia which has housing for up to 2,000.  But U.S. Ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute warned  another 1,000 troops had already arrived.

“Recent Russian reinforcements over the last week or so feature a battalion-size ground force,” Lute told to reporters in Brussels Wednesday. “There is artillery, there are long-range rocket capabilities, there are air defense capabilities."

Lute added the deployment also included some of Russia’s most advanced tanks.

There are also growing concerns about the make-up and capability of the forces on the ground, which according to officials is a mix of soldiers loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Shia militia fighters from Iraq, Lebanon and even Pakistan and Afghanistan.

While Russia provides the air support, surveillance and high-level coordination, Iranian forces are directing many of the battles themselves, often with the foreign forces leading the way.

“I would say it’s likely in the tens of thousands of fighters who are actually on the ground,” said Phillip Smyth, a researcher with the University of Maryland and the Washington Institute of Near East Policy.

“Some of these guys, this is maybe their third tour in Syria. Some of them it’s their fourth tour. Other times it’s their first [tour] but they are experienced militiamen who fought hard in Iraq,” he said.

The presence of Iranian-trained fighters comes as no surprise to U.S. military officials who acknowledge “some movement” of  fighters into Syria has been going on for years.

Smyth, who tracks the activities of the Iranian-backed Shia militias on social media, said the recent increase of such forces in Syria appears to be part of a plan dating back to at least early July.

“Around July 3 is when the first recruitment pictures, which included phone numbers to call into a central recruitment bank, were posted online,” he said.

Smyth said online recruiting seemed to peak in August, shortly after Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander, Major General Qassem Soleimani, visited Moscow.  By mid-August, many of the recruits had finished training in Iran or Lebanon and were on their way to Syria.

“So these forces were there, essentially, to be those boots on the ground before the Russians were getting there,” Smyth said.  “And then this process has just continued through September utilizing different recruitment networks,” Smyth said.

“I don’t think Iran has the capability to change the air balance, or the weapons balance or make that much of a difference on the ground,” said Anthony Cordesman, a security analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It would take a lot more volunteers and a lot more ground forces capability than Iran has deployed to date to really be a significant new force in halting the rebels.”

For now, though, the ground campaign has made an impact, prompting civilians to flee from the villages of Kernaz and Kafranbooda, near Hama, north to Idlib province, according to rebel commanders and local residents.

One rebel commander speaking to VOA on the condition of anonymity before the ground offensive got underway, expressed concerns both about the long convoys of tanks and armored vehicles headed to Hama and Homs as well as the propaganda aimed at spreading fear.

But the commander said help has also arrived from friendly countries, though he refused to get into specifics.

Rebel forces also claimed several successes in some of the early clashes in Hama’s northern and eastern suburbs, claiming to have killed a Russian officer and some Russian soldiers while also several tanks, though none of the claims could be immediately confirmed.


15 Killed After Yemen Airstrike Hits Wedding

Suspected airstrikes by a Saudi Arabia-led coalition have hit a wedding in war-torn Yemen, according to witnesses and officials, killing at least 15 people and wounding at least 25 others.

The attacks hit a home late Wednesday in the Sanban region of Dhamar province, which is held by Shi'ite Houthi rebels being targeted by the months-long coalition bombing campaign.

The Riyadh-based alliance had no immediate comment on the incident.

The coalition has been repeatedly accused of carrying out deadly attacks in Yemen. The U.N. says as many as 1,100 civilians have been killed in six months of airstrikes.

It is the second time in 10 days the coalition has been accused of targeting a wedding. The coalition denied responsibility for a September 28 attack that killed more than 130 people at a wedding near the Red Sea coast, in what was the single deadliest incident since the conflict began.

Saudi coalition 

The Saudi coalition, which includes nine other Arab nations and is supported by the U.S., began fighting the rebels in March, two months after the Houthis drove the government from power and took control of the capital, Sana'a.

Backed by the airstrikes, pro-government forces have since retaken several areas of southern Yemen, and also have driven the rebels out of the country's second-largest city, Aden.

Earlier Wednesday, the Houthis announced they have accepted a U.N.-brokered peace plan and are ready to join peace talks aimed at ending the bloody conflict.

President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi has insisted Houthi fighters pull back from territory seized over the past year before his government will participate in the talks.

The United Nations and aid agencies have raised alarm about the human cost of the war.

On Wednesday, the rights group Amnesty International said the Saudi-led coalition is guilty of war crimes and urged countries to stop supplying arms to the coalition.

"Damning evidence of war crimes by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, which is armed by states including the U.S.A., highlights the urgent need for independent, effective investigation of violations and for the suspension of transfers of certain arms," Amnesty said.

The fighting and Saudi-led airstrikes on the Houthis have killed about 5,000 people and created a humanitarian disaster. Many Yemenis are in desperate need of food and medicine, and the country is said to be in a near state of famine.
NATO Slams Russia's 'Troubling Escalation' in Syria NATO Slams Russia's 'Troubling Escalation' in Syria Reviewed by Ajit Kumar on 5:08 PM Rating: 5

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