Russia, Iran & Turkey talk long-term Syrian peace in Sochi as US and allies beat war drums in Warsaw

Leaders from Russia, Turkey and Iran have descended on the Black Sea city of Sochi to discuss ways of ending Syria’s near-eight-year civil war. Meanwhile, hostile talk is emerging from a meeting of the US and its allies in Warsaw.

Ahead of the talks, the Kremlin said the purpose of the convention would be to discuss potential “joint steps” that can be taken to bring about a “long-term settlement” in the war-torn country.

In addition to the joint forum, President Vladimir Putin is also holding separate talks with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani.

Also on rt.com ‘Dead on arrival’: US kicks off Iran summit in Poland, but where are those key European allies?...

Speaking at the start of his meeting with Putin, President Erdogan said there was still uncertainty over Washington’s plan to remove troops stationed with Kurdish forces in northern Syria. However, he added that Turkey was willing to move ahead with coordinating a possible ‘safe zone’ with Russia.

9th tête-à-tête in the last year. They meet ahead of 4th summit on later on Thursday. Focus on crisis

Both Iran and Russia have been key allies in helping the Syrian government to defeat Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS). NATO-member Turkey also has a keen interest in Syria. In 2016, Turkish-backed Syrian militias seized two border crossings and now control a strip of Syrian land as deep as 30km. The grab was considered a bid to contain the Kurdish militias of the YPG, a group seen as terrorists by Erdogan, preventing them from expanding further along the Turkish-Syrian border.

The Sochi summit comes as countries allied to the US are in the Polish capital for two days of meetings. Organized under a similar theme of bringing “peace and stability to the Middle East,” the talks have been seen as a way for US President Donald Trump to drum up support among European and Arab allies for further action on Iran.

Meanwhile, the Israeli leader has been even more blunt. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said Israel and Arab countries are in talks “in order to advance the common interest of war with Iran,” although the translation from Hebrew was later downgraded to “struggle.”

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Syrian Army Enters Manbij as YPG Withdraws, Asks for Protection

Syria's state media reported the army has entered the city of Manbij, hours after the YPG urged the government to protect the city of a Turkish "invasion."

The Syrian army deployed forces to the city of Manbij in northwest Syria Friday, after the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) retreated from the area and urged Damascus to protect the town from the threat of a Turkish “invasion.”

RELATED: Turkish Forces Bound for Kurdish-Held Territory in Syria

According to state media SANA, Syrian forces raised the national flag in Manbij, while authorities expressed their commitment to guarantee “security for all Syrian citizens and others in the area.”

The announcement was made hours after YPG forces “invited” the Syrian government to assert control over the territory that lies only 30 kilometers away from the border with Turkey.

“We invite the Syrian government forces to assert control over the areas our forces have withdrawn from, in particularly Manbij, and to protect these areas against a Turkish invasion,” the YPG said via Twitter.

Russia has welcomed the move.

"Of course, this will help in stabilizing the situation. The enlargement of the zone under the control of government forces ... is, without doubt, a positive trend," Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, said.

With the YPG at its forefront, the Syrian Democratic Forces alliance (SDF) seized Manbij in 2016 from Islamic State, a milestone in the battle against the group.

United States President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw troops from Syria has alarmed the Kurdish-led fighters who played a crucial role in fighting the Islamic State group. U.S. military support for the Kurdish fighters has infuriated Turkey, a fellow member of the  North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO alliance, which sees the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) movement that has sought greater political autonomy within Turkey for decades.

RELATED: Syrian Anti-Aircraft Defense Repels Israeli Missiles

Turkey, which deems the YPG a threat to its own territory and has vowed to crush it. In mid-December, Turkey threatened a military operation against Manbij to remove the YPG. Turkey and its allied fighters have been amassing troops around the city in recent days.

A Turkish-backed rebel official, Major Youssef Hammoud, said the plan to attack SDF territory remained in force. "There is no Syrian soldier inside Manbij town from the regime's forces." He said his forces were waiting for Washington and Ankara to agree on how U.S. forces would leave Manbij.

On Friday, Turkish President Recep Tayipp Erdogan said Turkey will have no reason to be in Manbij if the "zone is purged of terrorist organizations." Erodgan also said during the same press conference that reports of Syrian troops in Manjib were unconfirmed by Turkey’s intelligence. “There is nothing certain,” he said.

Russian and Turkish authorities will discuss and evaluate the situation in Syria during a meeting in Moscow, scheduled for Saturday.

A senior Kurdish official, Ilham Ahmed, reportedly told the Associated Press that government troops have arrived but have not entered the city. According to her, Turkey-backed fighters have not withdrawn from Manbij. Ahmen added that an agreement is being worked out between the Russian and Syrian governments to allow Syrian to take over if the U.S. follows through with the announced withdrawal, for which there is no set timeline.

"The aim is to ward off a Turkish offensive," she said. "If the Turks' excuse is the (Kurdish fighters), they will leave their posts to the government."

Bashar al-Assad's government has said it welcomes the Kurdish group returning under the central government’s authority but it has also warned they will not consider the possibility of a Kurdish autonomous area.

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US-Led Coalition Strikes Kill 14 Civilians In East Syria: Monitor

Beirut: At least 14 civilians were killed Saturday in US-led coalition air strikes on the ISIS' last holdout in eastern Syria, a monitor said.

"Fourteen civilians, including five children under the age of 18, were killed in the coalition air raids on the villages of Hajin, Sousa and Al-Shaafa" in eastern Deir Ezzor province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

"The death toll is likely to rise due to the number of seriously wounded," Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

At least 9 ISIS jihadists were killed in the raids, he added.

The coalition was not immediately available for comment.

Strikes on the area intensified following an attempted jihadist attack on a coalition base in the nearby village of Al-Bahra, the Britain-based monitor said.

ISIS overran large swathes of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014, proclaiming a "caliphate" in land it controlled.

But the jihadist group has since lost most of its territory to various offensives in both countries.

In Syria, the group has seen its presence reduced to parts of the vast Badia desert and a pocket in Deir Ezzor that contains Hajin, Sousa and Al-Shaafa.

A Kurdish-Arab alliance backed by the coalition launched an offensive in September to wrest the Deir Ezzor pocket from IS.

But on Wednesday the alliance, the Syrian Democratic Forces, suspended its fight against the jihadists after Turkish forces fired on the group's positions.

The coalition estimates that 2,000 ISIS fighters remain in the Hajin pocket.

A total of more than 360,000 people have been killed since Syria's war erupted in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.

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Russia Warns About Opposition Staging Chemical Attacks in Syria

In April, the Syrian Government allegedly used chemical weapons to attack the last rebel-held position in the eastern Ghouta region.

On Tuesday, Moscow disclosed that groups within Syria are attempting to use chemical weapons to stir up commotion and prompt unrest in the country.

RELATED: Lebanon: Hundreds of Displaced Syrians Return Home

“Alarming reports are coming from various sources that some terrorist and extremist groups in Syria never stop attempts at staging large-scale provocations with the use of chemical weapons and toxic agent,” the Russian Foreign Ministry declared.

The ministry voiced its explicit concern that this type of “provocation” could be used as an excuse to “furnish foreign opponents of the legitimate government in Damascus with another pretext to stage aggressive actions like the illegal missile strikes delivered by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France on Syria in April 2018”, and that this action would also stagnate the establishment of a political process, the return of refugees and displaced persons to their homes. 

In April, the Syrian Government allegedly used chemical weapons to attack the last rebel-held position in the eastern Ghouta region. However, the government denied any responsibility and Russia went further to state that the attack was staged with the help of Britain.

“If they are saying that chemical (weapons) were used in Ghouta, and if [U.S. President Donald] Trump or France and Britain really wanted to know the truth, they should have provided appropriate conditions for the (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) OPCW to carry out its mission as it's the organization involved in this matter, and not to encroach upon the work of the international institutions and launch accusations and verdicts and then implement punishments," according to Ayman Sussan , Syria’s assistant foreign minister.

The Civil War in Syria started in 2011.

Since then, several years of violence have gripped the population and elicited the involvement of several outside players. On the one hand, Syrian rebels supported by the United States, United Kingdom and France coalition — Turkey joined in 2016, on the rebel’s side — and on the other, the Syrian Government, along with Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.

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Kremlin alarmed by MoD report that US spy plane coordinated drone attack on Russia's Syria base

The Kremlin has said it is concerned about a report by Russia’s Defense Ministry that a US spy plane was in control of a drone attack on Russia's Khmeimim Airbase in Syria in January.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov made clear that the military has analyzed all available data and has drawn the necessary conclusions before saying that the drone attack on the Russian airbase was directed from a US P-8 Poseidon surveillance plane.

“This is undoubtedly a very alarming report,” he noted. 

All further details will be provided by the Defense Ministry. But President Vladimir Putin may raise the issue with his US counterpart Donald Trump when the opportunity arises.

READ MORE: US spy plane circled between Russian airbase & port facility during Syria drone attack – MoD

The Kremlin's response comes after Colonel General Alexander Fomin, the deputy defense minister, had reportedly addressed the January drone attack during the Beijing Xiangshan Forum, a high-profile conference on defense and security.

According to the top defense military official, 13 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) had approached Russia’s Khmeimim base at the time when the Poseidon plane was traversing skies over the Mediterranean. When Russian electronic countermeasures were turned on at Khmeimim, the drones continued their flying mission in manual mode.

He said the drones were not manned “by some peasant,” they were flown from “a standard, well-equipped P-8 Poseidon,” which had manual control over the UAVs in question.

When these drones came across Russia’s electronic warfare measures, they pulled back from the kill zone and began receiving some commands via satellite communications, General Fomin explained. Someone, he said, “guided the UAVs to the so-called holes [in Russian defenses],” which they utilized before being downed by Khmeimim’s surface-to-air missiles.

The incident occurred overnight on January 8, involving 10 UAVs targeting Khmeimim itself. Three more drones attempted a strike on the Russian naval facility at the Syrian port city of Tartus. All 13 craft were then engaged by the Pantsir-S1 air-defense system.

READ MORE: Drones are new serious terrorist threat in Syria – Russian defense minister

Three enemy drones, overridden by the Russian electronic warfare team, landed intact outside Khmeimim and were later inspected by the military. It was the first time that Syrian militants had used remote-controlled top-notch weaponry in the war. The Defense Ministry said the drones had been acquired “only from a country possessing state-of-the-art technologies.”

The Pentagon tried to rebut the Russian allegations at the time, with spokesman Adrian Rankin-Galloway claiming “those devices and technologies can easily be obtained in the open market.”

The January attack was not the only one of its kind. Russian air defenses at Khmeimim have dealt with intruder UAVs on numerous occasions throughout this summer. No drone managed to get close to the facility.

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Russia’s S-300 delivery shows Israel who’s in charge, but not aimed at hurting relations – analysts

Russia’s decision to boost Syrian air defenses in response to the downing of an Il-20 plane amid an Israeli raid is meant to sting, but not pose a serious threat to Israel’s national security, experts told RT.

Last week, a Russian Il-20 electronic warfare plane with 15 crew on board was shot down off the Syrian coast by an anti-air missile fired in response to an Israeli air raid. The raid targeted the Latakia province, which houses a Russian airbase.

@RT_com Russian MoD on measures they take in Syria after Il-20 downing - WATCH STATEMENT https://on.rt.com/9evq

Moscow accused Israel of failing to warn the Russian military of its impending attack in time to move the landing aircraft out of harm’s way. On Monday, the Russian military said they would boost Syrian air defenses in several ways to prevent similar incidents in the future.

“It was inevitable that at some point [Israel] would cross that line in its special relationship with Russia and would go a bit too far,” said Beirut-based journalist Martin Jay.

“The deal that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin gave to Israel was incredible. It [not only] allowed Israel to make air strikes with impunity across the country on targets that it believed to be Hezbollah weapons factories or Iranian military installations.”

Russia had also promised to keep pro-Iranian militias away from Syria’s border with Israel and froze a planned delivery of an S-300 long-range air defense system to the Syrian armed forces. This deal has now been unfrozen and is to be completed within two weeks, Moscow has announced.

“I think all bets are off now. Russia is showing Israel who is in charge and that it won’t take any more nonsense,” Jay told RT.

 
FILE PHOTO: A Russian Il-20 reconnaissance aircraft. © Sergey Pivovarov / Reuters

The deployment of the S-300 would reduce Israel’s ability to strike targets in Syria, although how much would depend on the number of batteries and the skill of the crews that would man them, said Nikolay Surkov, a senior researcher at the Moscow-based International Institute for World Economy and International Relations. Should Israel take risks or use more costly weapon systems, it may be able to conduct air strikes in Syria even after the planned upgrade, he said.

“They will have to use more assets, use armed drones and cruise missiles as opposed to fighter jets,” he said. “At least that’s what they told me when we discussed a possible delivery of the S-300 a few years ago… Of course this would be more difficult, more costly and more risky.”

The Russian expert believes that Israel may tolerate losses during sorties in Syria up to a point, possibly even ramping up attacks by way of retaliation, as was the case with the loss of a fighter jet in February. The worst-case scenario would be a full-blown air war in southern Syria not involving Russia directly.

“Russia has made its response and showed Israel how displeased it is. But Russia and Israel are partners, and neither side wishes to endanger this partnership. I believe a way forward that would satisfy both parties would be found. The Israelis would be more cautious in the future while Russia would refrain from further escalation,” Surkov predicted. “At the moment we don’t have a confrontation here, just mutual complaints.”

«Favorit» in Syria. What is the Russian S 300 able to..

Similar messages, which signal Russia’s willingness to prevent the conflict with Israel from spiraling out of control, came from Moscow after the Defense Ministry’s statement. The Kremlin stressed that the measures taken by the military are not aimed at any third parties while the Foreign Ministry said Russia’s relations with Israel are too “massive and comprehensive” to be significantly hurt by the fallout from the Il-20 incident.

But Jay, the Lebanon-based journalist, pointed out that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be limited by pressure at home in how he can deal with the situation.

“He has been resolving all the allegations of corruption through his political fortitude. He is doing really good at the moment, but this could be a game changer,” he said.

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'Hope they come to their senses': Tehran summit ends with call for Idlib terrorists to lay down arms

Turkey seems to have prevailed during tripartite talks with Russia and Iran, convincing the other parties that a major offensive in Syria's Idlib governorate would not be the wisest move at the moment.

The situation in Syria was discussed in Tehran on Friday by Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russia's Vladimir Putin and Iran's Hassan Rouhani as part of the so-called "Astana process." The leaders of Iran and Turkey disagreed on what action should be taken in Syria's Idlib, the last major stronghold of armed groups in the country, which is dominated by hardcore jihadists.

 
FILE PHOTO: The US flag on a military vehicle in Manbej countryside, Syria © Aboud Hamam

All three nations agree that the threat of radical Islamists in Syria must be eliminated, but differ as to how this should be achieved. Rouhani advocated a strong-arm approach, claiming it would secure an end to major hostilities in the seven-year-old conflict.

"We have to realize that only the destruction of the terrorists, a military victory against them, can ensure stability and peace in the future in Syria and not only in that country," he said.

Erdogan reiterated his government's concern over the potential death toll of an offensive in highly populated Idlib, where an estimated 3.5 million people are currently living. Turkey, which borders the Syrian governorate, is also objecting to a major operation there because it would likely cause a major exodus of refugees across the border, with extremists potentially sneaking in with refugees.

"[The refugees] would have no other way to go but Turkey. But we have already accepted 3.5 million refugees. Turkey cannot take in more," said President Erdogan.

"Our goal is to resolve the situation in Idlib according to the spirit of the agreements we made in Astana," Erdogan added, warning that "mistakes in Idlib may derail the political process in Syria."

The Iranian president eventually agreed that civilians living in Idlib should not become victims of an anti-terrorist effort.

Call to end violence

At Erdogan's suggestion, the final communique of the summit was amended to include a call for all armed groups in Idlib to lay down arms and seek a political transition in the country. Putin and Rouhani agreed, which may indicate that a major offensive in Idlib is not likely to be launched in the immediate future, unless some major development happens on the ground. The Russian president remarked that the call is addressed to all armed groups in the Syrian province, including UN-designated terrorist groups.

"Let us hope that the members of the terrorist organizations would have enough sense to stop resistance and lay down weapons," he said.

"Our agreements on Syria were always based on a premise that we are seeking to ensure peace between all belligerents, but kept the terrorist organizations bracketed out," he remarked.

@Khaaasteh While final statement of was about to be passed, Erdogan suddenly questioned the text and called for inclusion of "ceasefire" in the statement. The presidents are now negotiating and bargaining live on TV !

As he was arguing against an offensive in Idlib, Erdogan acknowledged that armed groups controlling the governorate pose a credible threat, including to Russian military personnel stationed at Khmeimim Airbase. He suggested that regular drone attacks on the Russian military site should be stopped by pushing those launching them out of range.

During the summit, Rouhani and Erdogan were united in their criticism of the presence of US troops in Syria. The Iranian president repeatedly stressed that foreign influence was a major factor in escalating the war in Syria, and called on the US to withdraw the troops that it has illegally deployed in Syria. Erdogan reiterated Ankara's objection to the support that the US gives Kurdish militias in northern Syria, which are perceived as a major security threat by the Turkish government.

Return of refugees key to resolving violence

Putin's remarks on the situation in Syria tilted towards humanitarian aspects and the necessity to reconstruct the country. He said that many people who had fled violence in Syria to other nations may now return to their homes.

 
© Umit Bektas

"Conditions have been made in Syria to take in up to a million of refugees. The government has provided security guarantees to all returnees, assuring that they would not be subjected to discrimination, including in terms of property rights," he said.

The Russian president argued that, if as many Syrians as possible get a chance to return to peaceful lives, it would give an impetus to a political resolution of the conflict between the Syrian government and the so-called "moderate opposition." Erdogan disagreed with Putin, saying that the return of refugees to Syria would only be possible after a new constitution is agreed and adopted, and an election held to form a new government.

Russia, Turkey and Iran are seeking to end violence in Syria and facilitate negotiations between its government and opposition groups, which agree to cease hostilities and seek a political transition for their country. The desired outcome is a peaceful Syria under a government that properly represents all its minorities and is in control of all its territory. The final resolution of the conflict, which was greatly complicated by foreign interference and the rise of jihadist groups, is expected to be negotiated in Geneva under the aegis of the UN.

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Russian jets hit solely Nusra targets in Syria’s Idlib – MoD

Russian military planes launched precision strikes against Jabhat an-Nusra objects in Syria’s Idlib province on September 4, the Russian Defense Ministry has revealed, countering reports of civilians falling prey to bombardment.

The statement comes after speculation that Russian aircraft in fact bombed civilian targets in the area on Tuesday and that the assault led to casualties.

Moscow, for its part, has repeatedly warned that the area is the last stronghold for the terrorists, where militants, among others, have their weapons stockpiled. A particular point of concern, Russia said, were plans by terrorists to stage a fake chemical attack with the aim of framing Damascus. Especially worrying was that militants also received their weapons from “forces from abroad.”

@RT_com US demonstrates ‘subtle desire’ to rescue terrorists in Idlib, Syria – Lavrov https://on.rt.com/9dou

“High-precision munitions” targeted the terrorists’ sites, according to Russian Defense Ministry Spokesman Igor Konashenkov.

The official stressed that the hits were launched “solely on the identified terrorist objects [targets] located far from settlements.”

Elaborating on the targets, the Russian MoD said Su-34 hit and destroyed a workshop where Al-Nusra Front terrorists constructed drones and a warehouse of explosives for them. An Su-35C also bombed a storehouse, where the militants kept their MANPADs.

Ignoring Russia’s warnings, the US has been threatening to retaliate if Syrian authorities use chemical weapons. Earlier this week, US President Donald Trump warned Syrian leader Bashar Assad not to launch an attack in Idlib, also saying that Iran and Russia should not take part in the “potential human tragedy.”

Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that the planned chemical weapon provocation in “the last remaining hotbed of the terrorists,” Idlib, is aimed at keeping the terrorists in the area. He noted that civilians are still being held as “human shields” there.

The Western media still refers to those controlling Idlib as ‘moderate rebels’. However, the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, also noted that an estimated 10,000 terrorists are entrenched in the area.

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