Russia shows military might in Syria ahead of peace talks

HEMEIMEEM AIR BASE, Syria -- Russian warplanes took off one after another with roaring thunder on Wednesday from their base on Syria's coast, which bustled with activity as Moscow pressed its air blitz days before scheduled peace talks.

See Full Article

Helicopter gunships swept low around the base in the province of Latakia to prevent any possible attack. Even though the front line is dozens of kilometres away and the area around the base is tightly controlled, the Russian military methodically patrols the area to make sure there is no ground threat.

Two heavy transport planes were parked near the main terminal as soldiers toting assault rifles stood guard.

Since Russia launched its air campaign in Syria on Sept. 30, its warplanes have flown 5,700 missions. The number is remarkable for a compact force comprising just a few dozen warplanes.

The Russian military brought a group of Moscow-based reporters to the base on Wednesday to see the operations. Defence Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said that by afternoon Russian warplanes had flown about 40 sorties, with each aircraft hitting from three to five targets on a single run. In the early stages of the campaign, planes struck only one target during each mission.

In the time since The Associated Press first visited the Hemeimeem base in October, the military has put a second runway into service and has deployed powerful air defence weapons. The towering launch tubes and massive radar arrays of the long-range S-400 missiles could be seen at the edge of the base.

Asked how long the Russian air campaign may last, Konashenkov said only that Russia's goal is to strike extremist infrastructure in support of Syrian government troops. "They have shown some good results in defeating terrorist groups," he said.

The Russian military has insisted it is targeting the Islamic State group and other extremists and has angrily dismissed Western accusations of hitting moderate rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad. Moscow also has rejected claims that its aircraft have hit civilians, insisting all casualties have been at extremist facilities away from populated areas.

Konashenko said Syrian government forces backed by Russian airstrikes have retaken about 250 villages and towns from extremists. Each target is verified through multiple intelligence sources, and every fifth target Russia hits is now chosen thanks to information from "patriotic" opposition forces, he said.

Konashenko said one particularly successful strike was conducted Tuesday in the Aleppo province, where a Russian Su-34 bomber hit a meeting of extremist leaders.

Russian ordnance includes bunker-buster bombs capable of piercing seven meters (23 feet) of rock to destroy underground facilities, Konashenko said. Some of the bombs are laser-guided, but all Russian warplanes at the base are equipped with a sophisticated targeting system, allowing them to use even regular bombs with pinpoint accuracy, he said.

British Defence Minister Michael Fallon on Wednesday once again raised Western concerns about civilian deaths as a result of the Russian air strikes.

"I am very concerned at the number of civilian casualties through the use of unguided munitions; seems to be several hundred casualties now," he said in Paris during a meeting of Western defence ministers on how to combat the Islamic State group. "We've seen Russian strikes on opposition forces, on towns and villages, particularly in the south of Syria, which is simply prolonging the Syrian war, propping up Assad and is actually delaying the day on which we can all unite and properly get Daesh out of Syria."

Konashenkov dismissed such claims as "slanderous lies."

Across the tarmac, Russian soldiers loaded humanitarian supplies onto a Syrian Il-76 heavy transport plane to be parachuted over Deir el-Zour, where government-held areas of the city have been blockaded by extremists for more than a year. The United Nations says living conditions there have deteriorated significantly, with reports of up to 20 deaths because of malnutrition.

Konashenkov said more than 50 metric tons of relief supplies have been delivered to Deir el-Zour, parachuted in on cargo platforms provided by the Russian military that guarantee precise drops. The Syrian government controls the military airport in the city, and activists claim that the limited amount of aid that gets in typically goes to army officers and their allies, who sell it on the black market.

The Syrian government and the opposition are set to open talks in Geneva on Monday. The negotiations are meant to pave the way for a political settlement with a new constitution and elections in a year and a half.

International negotiators, including the United States and its allies and Assad's backers, Russia and Iran, have failed to agree on which of the myriad Syrian militant groups should be part of political talks. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry were meeting in Switzerland on Wednesday to try to resolve the differences over who is eligible to join the UN-mediated peace talks.

The most visible difference at the Hemeimeem base since the AP visited in October is the presence of the S-400 air defence systems. Russia deployed the powerful weapons, capable of hitting targets 400 kilometres away, after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane along the Syrian border on Nov. 24.

Turkey said it downed the jet after it violated its airspace for a few seconds, while Russia insisted its plane had stayed within Syrian airspace. It was the first time in more than half a century that a NATO nation had shot down a Russian plane.

The Russian military quickly sent the S-400s to the base and warned that it would fend off any threat to its aircraft. Moscow also punished Turkey by imposing an array of economic sanctions, including a ban on the sale of package tours.

To augment the air defences, Russia has kept a navy ship carrying long-range air defence missiles off the Syrian shore. And Russian fighter jets have begun escorting strike jets on their combat missions to fend off any air threat.

Milos Krivokapic in Paris contributed to this report



Advertisements

Latest Canada & World News

  • Quebec City police say two-year-old girl was stabbed to death

    Canada News CTV News
    QUEBEC -- Police say a two-year-old Quebec girl who died in hospital after being found in a garbage can had been stabbed. Rosalie Gagnon's mother was charged Thursday with arson, mischief and obstructing the work of a police officer in the infant's death. Source
  • Quebec school boards say they're not ready for new surge of asylum seekers

    Canada News CTV News
    MONTREAL -- Quebec schools are feeling the pressure as asylum-seeking families with young children continue to cross the U.S. border into the province. A spokeswoman for one of Montreal's largest school boards says it has had a record number of new students this past year, including some 700 who are asylum seekers. Source
  • Toddler found dead in Quebec City had been stabbed, police confirm

    Canada News CBC News
    Quebec City police say they now have the autopsy results for two-year-old Rosalie Gagnon, found dead in a garbage bin Wednesday, confirming she was stabbed to death. Police are asking residents whose garbage bins have gone missing and who live on or near de Gaulle Avenue to contact 911. Source
  • Supreme court changes guidelines for international child custody cases

    Canada News CTV News
    Canada's top court is issuing new guidelines on how international custody disputes should be judged, saying "all relevant circumstances" should be taken into account when deciding what country a child should live in. The direction from the Supreme Court of Canada comes in a ruling on a custody battle involving parents who clashed on whether their children should live in Canada or Germany. Source
  • Parliament Hill plays host to last annual marijuana rally before legalization

    Canada News CTV News
    OTTAWA -- Cannabis enthusiasts are gathering en masse on Parliament Hill to mark the annual marijuana celebration known as 4-20. The event marks the last time pot users will flock to the Hill to celebrate cannabis culture in late April before the federal government legalizes recreational marijuana later this summer. Source
  • Man accused of student murder not fit for trial: court

    Canada News CTV News
    NEW WESTMINSTER, B.C. -- A man accused of murdering a student at a high school in Abbotsford, B.C., has been found unfit to stand trial because of his mental state. B.C. Supreme Court Justice Heather Holmes said Friday that the variability of Gabriel Klein's mental illness must be taken into account. Source
  • A look at each province's rules for marijuana legalization

    Canada News CTV News
    As cannabis culture is celebrated across Canada, the annual 4/20 day carries a special significance for Canadians this year, thanks to the promised legalization of marijuana that’s expected to take effect in the coming months. Source
  • Mourners lining up to pay final respects to Barbara Bush

    World News CTV News
    HOUSTON -- A spray of flowers covered the closed silver casket of former first lady Barbara Bush in the sanctuary of a Houston church as hundreds of mourners began arriving Friday to pay their final respects. Source
  • President George HW Bush greets mourners honouring his wife

    World News CTV News
    HOUSTON -- Former President George H.W. Bush surprisingly greeted some of the hundreds of mourners filing through a large Houston church on Friday as they paid final respects to his wife of 73 years, former first lady Barbara Bush. Source
  • Leaders approve Prince Charles to succeed Queen as Commonwealth head

    World News CBC News
    Prince Charles was approved to succeed Queen Elizabeth as head of the Commonwealth at a Friday meeting of the group's heads of government in the British town of Windsor. "We recognize the role of the Queen in championing the Commonwealth and its peoples," the Commonwealth leaders said in a statement. Source