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

  • Fellony the felon hit with new felony charges

    World News Toronto Sun
    Fellony the serial felon has been hit with new felony charges, according to reports. Fellony Hudson, 22, of Salem, Ore., has been charged with felony kidnapping, felony eluding, felony possession of a stolen vehicle and various other misdemeanors after cops chased the ironically-named man across state lines last week. Source
  • Trump lashes out at fellow Republicans in Twitter tirade

    World News Toronto Sun
    WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is expressing his frustration with fellow Republicans, saying they “do very little to protect their President.” In one of several tweets issued Sunday afternoon and evening, Trump said the lack of support happens even with “some that were carried over the line on my back. Source
  • Chainsaw-wielding man wounds five in Switzerland

    World News Toronto Sun
    BERLIN — An unkempt man armed with a chainsaw wounded five people Monday at an office building in the northern Swiss city of Schaffhausen and then fled, police said. A manhunt was on for him. Police were alerted to the attack at 10:39 a.m. Source
  • Pregnant woman stabbed multiple times at her Montreal home

    Canada News CTV News
    MONTREAL - Police say a 33-year-old pregnant woman was stabbed several times early Monday morning in her home in the city's north end. Authorities say the victim was attacked by her partner, who fled the scene when police arrived. Source
  • At least 12 dead in car bombing in eastern Pakistan

    World News CBC News
    Pakistani officials say a car bomb has killed 12 people and wounded 25 in the eastern city of Lahore. A statement from Malik Mohammad Ahmed, a spokesman for government of the eastern Punjab province, said the car bomb struck an old vegetable market in the neighbourhood of Kot Lakhpat on Lahore's outskirts on Monday. Source
  • Police-reported pot offences decline in 2016: StatsCan

    Canada News CTV News
    OTTAWA -- The number of cannabis-related offences reported to police was down again last year, for the fifth time in a row. Statistics Canada says there were about 55,000 offences related to marijuana reported to police in 2016, which is about 6,000 fewer than reported the year before, despite the fact that overall, the percentage of Canadians who consume the drug has gone up over time. Source
  • Jared Kushner says he has ‘nothing to hide’ on Russia

    World News Toronto Sun
    WASHINGTON — Senior White House adviser Jared Kushner denied Monday that he colluded with Russians in the course of President Donald Trump’s successful White House bid, declaring in a statement ahead of interviews with congressional committees that he has “nothing to hide. Source
  • Montreal newborn fights for life after mom repeatedly stabbed

    Canada News Toronto Sun
    A newborn infant is fighting for its life in a Montreal hospital Monday morning after being delivered by caesarian section after its 33-year-old mother was repeatedly stabbed. Police say that while the mother's condition has stabilized, the child is in critical condition. Source
  • Trump has no immediate plans to fill vacant White House job of 'first pet'

    World News CTV News
    WASHINGTON -- Politically ambitious pups and kittens: Put your resumes aside. The job of first pet -- an enviable White House gig with luxurious live-in privileges, after-hours access to the president and guaranteed positive press coverage -- is not currently available. Source
  • B.C. teen completes 12 hour swim across English Channel for charity

    Canada News Toronto Sun
    KELOWNA, B.C. — While many teens spend summers relaxing, a 17-year-old from Kelowna, B.C., has been pushing her body and mind to the limits and raising thousands of dollars for charity in the process. Emily Epp swam across the English Channel earlier this month in a gruelling trek that took nearly 12 hours to complete. Source