More than 15,000 Syrian civilians fled Aleppo province due to intensified Russian airstrikes, activists reported on Friday. This comes amid fears that Aleppo falls under a full siege by pro-Assad forces.
“Thousands of families escaped their homes in Aleppo province, heading to Turkey,” local media activist Tammam Hashim told ARA News. “Thousands of people crossed into Turkey through the Bab al-Salam border crossing, while many others are still stranded at the border gate, waiting to be allowed to enter the Turkish territory,” the source said. The increasing civilian casualties under the Russian raids in Aleppo caused a state of panic among the residents of Syria’s most populated province.
On Friday, Syrian army forces and allied Hezbollah militants seized control of Ratyan town in the northern countryside of Aleppo province. “Backed by Russian airstrikes, pro-Assad troops took over Ratyan after heavy fighting with rebels of the Levant Front,” rebel spokesman Saleh Zein told ARA News.
Aleppo province is divided between the Syrian regime’s troops, moderate rebel groups, ISIS and al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. Civilians suffer a sharp shortage of basic supplies amid intensifying fighting across the province.
Russia's prime minister accused the West on Saturday of rekindling the Cold War, telling a meeting of top defense officials, diplomats and national leaders that sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea and new moves by the NATO alliance "only aggravate" tensions.
Dmitry Medvedev said Russian President Vladimir Putin told the same Munich Security Conference in 2007 that the West's building of a missile defense system risked restarting the Cold War, and that now "the picture is more grim; the developments since 2007 have been worse than anticipated."
"NATO's policies related to Russia remain unfriendly and opaque — one could go so far as to say we have slid back to a new Cold War," he said. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg threw the blame back at Moscow. "Russia's rhetoric, posture and exercises of its nuclear forces are aimed at intimidating its neighbors, undermining trust and stability in Europe," he said.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin ordered on Monday the withdrawal most of the military forces recently deployed in Syria, signaling the end of a campaign in support of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the country’s civil war. If implemented—and that is yet to happen—Russia’s unexpected withdrawal would bring to a close several months of aerial bombardment that bolstered Assad’s side in an offensive against rebel groups opposed to his regime. “I think that the tasks set to the defense ministry are generally fulfilled,” Putin told Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at a meeting on Monday, according to the TASS news agency.
Russia will maintain its existing military bases in Syria, but will remove the “main air grouping” of the country’s air force, according to a statement from the Kremlin. The withdrawal is set to begin on March 15. Russia’s exit from the war could mark a major shift in the dynamics of Syria’s five-year-old civil conflict, which has killed more than a quarter million people and displaced more than 11 million, including millions forced to flee the country as refugees. Russia entered the war in late September 2015, launching airstrikes primarily on rebel brigades fighting the regime.
Moscow has maintained throughout that it’s mission in Syria is to battle “terrorist” groups,” but it has focused its bombardment on mainstream rebels, with fewer strikes directed at jihadist groups such as ISIS. For that reason, Russia’s intervention buoyed the fortunes of a regime that had lost large zones of territory to both local rebels and transnational jihadists. The regime had struggled to replenish the ranks of a military sapped by years of conflict and undercut by political opposition to the regime, and before Russia joined the campaign at the end of the September, Assad’s position was becoming increasingly weak.
With backing from Russia and Iran, as well as Iraqi militias and forces from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, however, the regime has managed to advance on rebel-held areas in recent months, coming close to surrounding the city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city before the war, which has been partially controlled by rebels since 2012. But the Russian withdrawal will likely come as a blow to Assad, and hobble his stated aim to reconquer the entire country.
Russian fighter jets and a Russian military helicopter repeatedly buzzed a U.S. Navy warship at close range earlier this week in the Baltic Sea, ignoring radio warnings and temporarily disrupting the ship's flight operations.
Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said Wednesday that two Russian fighter jets flew “dangerously close” to the U.S. guided missile destroyer Donald Cook as it conducted a routine patrol on Monday and Tuesday.
In footage released by the Pentagon, Russian warplanes zooming by the warship appear close enough to distinguish its weapons. They flew so low that a wake was created in the icy waters below. U.S. officials estimated the Su-24 fighter jets flew as close as 30 feet from the American ship.
“This incident, as you won't be surprised to hear, is entirely inconsistent with the professional norms of militaries operating in proximity to each other in international waters and international airspace,” Earnest said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned the US against repeating the mistake it made in Libya in Syria, noting that Barack Obama’s confession about Libya being his “greatest mistake” shows the US President is a “decent person.”
“Firstly, it confirms once again that the current US president is a decent man - and I say this without irony, because it’s not easy to say such things,” President Putin said during his annual Q&A session.
He recalled that Barack Obama, while still a senator, had criticized the actions of the US administration on its 2003 Iraq campaign.
“Unfortunately, [Obama] himself made those mistakes in Libya. It is very good that my colleague has the courage to [admit it], not everyone can do it,” Putin said, adding that “only a strong man” can make such bold statements. But Putin stressed “the bad thing is that this series of errors continues. After all, the same mistake was almost made in Syria, and it is still not clear what the outcome will be.”