Obama urges Russia’s Putin to stop bombing ‘moderate’ Syria rebels

  • Reuters, Beirut / Washington
  • Updated: Feb 14, 2016 23:45 IST
Still image taken from aerial footage released by Russia's Defence Ministry on February 11, 2016, shows airstrikes, carried out by the country's air force and hitting what the Defence Ministry says were Islamic State oil storage facilities, at an unknown location in Syria. (Reuters)

US President Barack Obama urged Russia on Sunday to stop bombing “moderate” rebels in Syria in support of its ally Bashar al-Assad, a campaign seen in the West as a major obstacle to latest efforts to end the war.

Major powers agreed on Friday to a limited cessation of hostilities in Syria but the deal does not take effect until the end of this week and was not signed by any warring parties - the Damascus government and numerous rebel factions fighting it.

Russian bombing raids directed at rebel groups are meanwhile helping the Syrian army to achieve what could be its biggest victory of the war in the battle for Aleppo, the country’s largest city and commercial hub before the conflict.

The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin and Obama had agreed to intensify cooperation to implement the agreement on Syria, struck in Munich.

After a phone call between Putin and Obama, the Kremlin said both gave a “positive valuation” to the Munich meeting.

The Kremlin statement made clear Russia was committed to its campaign against Islamic State and “other terroristic organisations”, an indication that it would also be targeting groups in western Syria where jihadists such as al Qaeda are fighting Assad in close proximity to rebels deemed moderate by the West.

Russia says the “cessation” does not apply to its air strikes, which have shifted the balance of power towards Assad.

It says Islamic State and the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front are the main targets of its air campaign. But Western countries say Russia has in fact been mostly targeting other insurgent groups, including some they support.

The White House said Obama’s discussion with Putin stressed the need to rush humanitarian aid to Syria and contain air strikes.

“In particular, President Obama emphasized the importance now of Russia playing a constructive role by ceasing its air campaign against moderate opposition forces in Syria,” the White House said in a statement.

Relief workers said efforts to deliver humanitarian aid were being threatened by the latest escalation of violence. 

“We must ask again, why wait a week for this urgently needed cessation of hostilities?” said Dalia al-Awqati, Mercy Corps Director of Programs for North Syria.

The situation in Syria has been complicated by the involvement of Kurdish-backed combatants in the area north of Aleppo near the Turkish border, which has drawn a swift military response from artillery in Turkey.

The Kurdish YPG militia, helped by Russian air raids, seized an ex-military air base at Menagh last week, angering Turkey, which sees the YPG as an extension of the PKK, a Kurdish group that waged a bloody insurgent campaign on Turkish soil over most of the past three decades.

Turkey began shelling while demanding that the YPG militia withdraw from areas it has captured from Syrian rebels in the northern Aleppo region in recent days, including the Menagh air base. The bombardment killed two YPG fighters, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Syrian Kurdish PYD party rejected Turkish demands for withdrawal, while the Syrian government said Turkish shelling of northern Syria amounted to direct support for insurgent groups.

Other fronts were also active on Sunday.

Kurdish-backed forces were fighting with insurgent groups near Tel Rifaat in the northern Aleppo countryside, while further south, government forces renewed their shelling of rebel positions to the northwest of Aleppo city.

The Observatory also reported air strikes by jets believed to be Russian in areas east of Damascus, north of Homs, and in the southern province of Deraa.

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