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WAR REPORT
Russia to reduce Syria presence by year's end: military
by Staff Writers
Sochi, Russia (AFP) Nov 23, 2017


Russian strikes kill 53 civilians in Syria's Deir Ezzor: monitor
Beirut (AFP) Nov 27, 2017 - At least 53 civilians, including 21 children, perished early Sunday morning when Russian air strikes hit "residential buildings" in a village held by the Islamic State group in eastern Syria, a monitor said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the strikes hit the village of Al-Shafah in Deir Ezzor province, on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River.

The Observatory relies on a network of sources inside Syria, and says it determines whose planes carry out raids according to type, location, flight patterns and munitions used.

The monitor had initially given a death toll of 34 civilians but the number spiked after more bodies were recovered.

"The toll increased after removing the debris in a long day of rescue operation," Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP, adding the strikes hit "residential buildings".

At least 18 people were also wounded in the air raids, he added.

Russia is a close ally of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, and in September 2015 began a military intervention in support of his government that has gradually helped Damascus regain territory.

Syria's Deir Ezzor is one of the last places IS jihadists hold territory in the country, after being driven from their major strongholds including their one-time de facto Syrian capital Raqa city.

The oil-rich eastern province that borders Iraq was once almost completely under IS control, but the jihadists now hold just nine percent of Deir Ezzor, according to the Observatory.

They have faced two separate offensives there, one led by the regime with Russian backing and the other by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters.

More than 340,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests.

- Russia in driving seat -

The latest strikes come as the United Nations tries to revitalise its flagging efforts to end a six-year civil war that has left Syria devastated and huge swathes of its population refugees.

On Tuesday, the eighth round of UN-brokered talks will kick off.

They have achieved little so far, but may be bolstered by the opposition's decision to bring a unified delegation to Geneva for the first time.

For progress to happen rival sides will need to overcome the hurdle that has derailed past discussions: the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

He retains Moscow's support but is loathed by much of Syria's rebel opposition who want him gone.

Backed by Russia's decisive military support, Assad's government has regained control of 55 percent of the country, including major cities Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Hama, and around two-thirds of the population lives in regime-held areas.

The rest is carved up between rebel factions, jihadists and Kurdish forces.

Some experts believe that Russia has clearly put itself in the driver's seat in recent months, especially as US President Donald Trump's administration has pulled back from Syrian diplomatic front.

Russia, fellow regime ally Iran and rebel-backer Turkey have hosted negotiations in the Kazakh capital Astana that led to the creation of four "de-escalation zones" which produced a drop in violence, though deadly air strikes and battles continue in some areas.

And this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for a "congress" of Syrian regime and opposition figures, a move backed by Ankara and Tehran.

Russia's military plans to reduce its involvement in Syria this year as it is nearing the completion of its goals there, the General Staff chief told journalists Thursday.

"Of course, there will be a decision taken by the commander in chief and the group (working in Syria) will be decreased," said Valery Gerasimov when asked whether Russia would be scaling back its forces in Syria by the end of the year.

"When we complete our tasks, military tasks. There is only a little left," Gerasimov said.

Asked about the extent of the pull-out, Gerasimov said it would be "extensive," though it was not clear if he was also referring to this year or a later date.

He said some military will be left behind even after Moscow scales back its involvement in bombing and combat.

"We will leave the Center for Reconciliation, our two military bases (in Tartus and Hmeimim) and several necessary structures to maintain the state which has developed at this time," said Gerasimov.

Putin this week hosted a round of diplomacy meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as well as the leaders of Turkey and Iran as he declared the Syrian crisis was entering "a new stage" after the country "has been saved as a state."

Moscow stepped into Syria's multi-front war in September 2015, sending planes to back the Assad regime and turning the military situation around in his favour.

Russia's military presence in Syria
Moscow (AFP) Nov 24, 2017 - The Russian military says it has begun scaling back its deployment to Syria more than two years after Moscow's intervention in the conflict on the side of the Damascus regime.

Valery Gerasimov, the chief of Russia's general staff, said there would be a "extensive" reduction of troops by the end of this year. He spoke after President Vladimir Putin said that a military campaign in Syria was coming to an end.

Here is what you need to know about the Russian army's presence in Syria.

- How many troops? -

The precise number of Russian troops fighting in Syria is not known.

Many in the country still harbour painful memories of the Soviet Union's disastrous venture into Afghanistan in 1979, with the decade-long conflict claiming the lives of more than 14,000 Soviet troops.

Putin ruled out dispatching ground troops in Syria, making the air force the mainstay of Moscow's Syria campaign. Officials have also acknowledged the presence of Russian advisors and military police in Syria.

The reality however is more complicated.

Independent Russian military expert Pavel Felgenhauer said up to 10,000 Russian troops and private contractors could have been deployed to Syria.

He suggested that Russia had between 4,000 and 5,000 Russian military servicemen in Syria including personnel at Russia's airbase in Khmeimim, a stronghold of President Bashar al-Assad in northwest Syria, and the Tartus naval facility.

On top of that, Felgenhauer said, some 2,000 to 3,000 military "advisors" helped the Syrian army gain an upper hand over rebels and jihadists on the ground.

Aside from these forces, Moscow has sent military police, mainly made up of Chechen battalions deployed to regions retaken from rebels forces like Aleppo.

Felgenhauer estimated there are also "up to a thousand" military police and special forces fighting alongside regime troops.

Officials and observers also point out the presence of Russian mercenaries in Syria, including those working for the private military company dubbed Wagner.

Felgenhauer estimated the number of mercenaries at 2,000 to 3,000.

- How many casualties? -

Around 40 Russian servicemen have reportedly been killed in Syria since Moscow's intervention. The Kremlin has acknowledged some of those deaths.

But the losses may be much higher given the number of Russian troops and mercenaries believed to be in the country.

- Fighter planes, bombers -

The role of the Russian air force has been celebrated at home. It is unclear how many aircraft have been deployed but Felgenhauer said "several dozens" of war planes and "several dozens" of helicopters were currently in the country.

Bomber planes such as the Tu-22 and Tu-160 have also flown from Russia to hit targets in Syria.

- Navy, aircraft carriers -

Russian warships and submarines have also played a prominent role backing up the bombing campaign in Syria, firing missiles at Islamic State group targets from the Mediterranean.

Moscow's Khmeimim airbase in Latakia province and naval facility in Tartus have been protected by S-300 and S-400 air missile defense systems.

Russian ships, such as Moscow's only aircraft carrier the Admiral Kuznetsov, also completed missions in Syria.

- What next? -

The significant retreat Gerasimov spoke of was not the first time Russia promised to wind down operations in Syria.

Putin first said in March 2016 that the country's military campaign in Syria was coming to an end.

Today few believe Russia is leaving the war-torn country any time soon, with analysts saying its military presence could be used as a bargaining chip during sputtering peace negotiations.

"Russia will not quit Syria, it did not fight for that. It fought so that it could stay," Felgenhauer said.

"These last two years, we heard announcements about retreat several times but, in fact, Russian presence has only increased," he said.

The military base in Khmeimim, hastily set up at a civilian airport in 2015 to welcome Russian planes, has became a permanent Russian base following an agreement between Damascus and Moscow.

WAR REPORT
Syria opposition meets in Riyadh under pressure to compromise
Riyadh (AFP) Nov 22, 2017
Syrian opposition figures met in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday in a bid to form an overhauled delegation to peace talks that analysts say may be more willing to compromise on key demands. The meeting came as Iran, Russia and Turkey held a summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, pressing their diplomatic dash to resolve Syria's six-year conflict with a new round of UN-brokered peace talks set to ... read more

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