Russia will help defend Syrian sovereignty, Putin tells Assad


Russian President Vladimir Putin reaffirms commitment to defending Syria’s sovereignty, in his New Year’s message. Meanwhile, fierce fighting kills dozens in northwest Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin told Syrian leader Bashar al Assad in a new year’s greeting that Russia will continue supporting Syria’s efforts to defend its sovereignty, the Kremlin said on Saturday.

Putin stressed that Russia would “continue to render every assistance to Syria in the protection of state sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity, in the promotion of a political settlement process, as well as in efforts to restore the national economy,” the Kremlin said.

Earlier this month Putin ordered the Russian forces in Syria to start withdrawing from the country, but said Russia would keep its Hmeymim air base in Syria’s Latakia Province as well as its naval facility at Tartous “on a permanent basis.”

Russia first launched air strikes in Syria in September 2015 in its biggest Middle East intervention in decades, turning the tide of the conflict in Assad’s favour.

Daesh which proclaimed a “caliphate” over swathes of Syria and Iraq in 2014, has now lost almost all the land it once controlled.

But other factions opposed to the regime still control pockets scattered across Syria, the largest one being Idlib province, which borders Turkey.

Civilian casualties

Intense fighting killed dozens of people on the edge of Idlib, the last Syrian province entirely outside regime control, as aid workers completed a series of medical evacuations from another opposition-held area on Friday.

Regime and allied forces backed by Russian warplanes took on mostly militants in an area straddling the border between Idlib and Hama provinces.

The fighting, which could signal the start of a major offensive to wrest Idlib province from militants dominated by a former al Qaeda affiliate, escalated on Thursday.

Since then, at least 68 people have been killed in the ongoing clashes centred around an area called al Tamana, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Among them were at least 21 civilians, Rami Abdel Rahman, who heads the Britain-based monitor, said.

They were killed in air strikes carried out by Russian warplanes and by barrel bombs dropped by Syrian aircraft, he said.

At least 27 soldiers and members of allied paramilitary units were killed in the fighting as well as 20 militants from former al Qaeda affiliate Fateh al Sham, he added.

Abdel Rahman said the latest deaths brought the number of civilians killed in the area since Monday to 42 and the death toll among combatants to 90.

Worst in months

An AFP correspondent near the front line said aerial activity was intense and the entire area rocked by frequent air strikes.

Through loudspeakers, rebel leaders warned remaining civilians that Friday prayers were cancelled and all residents should stay home.

Hundreds of civilians fled the scattering of villages in the area, creating queues of cars and pickup trucks loaded down with bags and furniture on the roads towards the city of Idlib.

Southeast of al Tamana, a Syrian cameraman working for a pro-regime TV network was killed Friday when his crew was targeted by “terrorists” near the village of Umm Haratain, state news agency SANA said.

“The air strikes haven’t been that intense in months in this area,” said Abdel Rahman, adding that the immediate goal of the latest regime push was to retake control of the southeast of the province.

Eastern Ghouta swap 

Eastern Ghouta, a small enclave east of the capital Damascus, is controlled mostly by the Jaish al Islam group and where around 400,000 residents still live.

The humanitarian situation there has deteriorated sharply in recent months and on Friday aid workers completed a series of medical evacuations of some of the most critical cases.

The last 13 in a group of 29 priority patients have now been evacuated, together with 56 members of their entourage, a health official said.

They were deemed among the most pressing cases on a list of around 500 people the UN said last month could die without urgent treatment outside the enclave, which has been besieged for four years.

The Observatory said the patients were evacuated as part of a deal that saw the rebels who control Eastern Ghouta release hostages and prisoners.

The International Committee of the Red Cross welcomed the evacuation as “a positive step”.

“But more needs to be done. The needs of civilians should come first, be it in Ghouta or elsewhere in Syria, and access to aid should be allowed on a more regular basis and without conditions,” said the ICRC’s Syria chief Marianne Gasser.

Dozens of militants and rebel fighters were meanwhile evacuated from a key stronghold near Damascus under a deal with the Syrian regime, state television reported.

It said 10 buses “transported al Nusra militants and members of their families from Western Ghouta” towards Idlib and Daraa provinces.

Al Nusra Front now calls itself Fateh al Sham Front. It is a former Al Qaeda affiliate that dominates the northern province of Idlib.