Res­i­dents say Putin’s forces are a wide­spread pres­ence and are the main train­ers of pro-gov­ern­ment fight­ers

The National - News - - NEWS - DAVID ENDERS

While Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin has pub­licly ex­pressed a de­sire to re­duce Rus­sia’s mil­i­tary pres­ence in Syria, the sit­u­a­tion on the ground sug­gests the op­po­site, with some ob­servers say­ing Rus­sia is rapidly sup­plant­ing Iran as the main trainer of pro-gov­ern­ment forces.

The trans­fer of rebel forces and civil­ians from the eastern sub­urbs of Da­m­as­cus was in re­cent weeks a salient ex­am­ple, with Rus­sian of­fi­cers ne­go­ti­at­ing di­rectly with rebel groups and even de­ploy­ing along­side Syr­ian mil­i­tary per­son­nel once the rebels had left.

“Ev­ery­one knows Rus­sia is in con­trol, not the regime,” said one young man, who was moved from the for­merly rebel-held sub­urb of Douma.

He said no one was sur­prised when an Ara­bic-speak­ing Rus­sian sol­dier boarded the bus that was to take peo­ple to rebel-con­trolled parts of north­ern Syria to check whether the pas­sen­gers were car­ry­ing any­thing more than the light weapons they had been per­mit­ted.

“Peo­ple hate Rus­sia as much as they hate the regime,” he said. “But they know Rus­sia is in con­trol, not [Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar] Al As­sad.”

The Rus­sian role in ne­go­ti­at­ing and en­forc­ing the agree­ment with rebels in Da­m­as­cus’s sub­urbs un­der­scores a larger ground-level pres­ence across Syria. Rus­sian De­fence Min­is­ter Sergei Shoigu said in De­cem­ber that 48,000 Rus­sian troops had taken part in Moscow’s mil­i­tary cam­paign in Syria, which be­gan in late 2015.

Those num­bers are dif­fi­cult to ver­ify, but Col Fateh Hassoun, a Syr­ian mil­i­tary of­fi­cer who de­fected and now ne­go­ti­ates on be­half of the rebel forces at in­ter­na­tional peace talks, said he be­lieves those num­bers are rea­son­able.

Col Hassoun said that Rus­sian mil­i­tary per­son­nel are in­creas­ingly sup­plant­ing Ira­nian ones in train­ing the Syr­ian regime’s forces, a dy­namic he thinks will only grow as Is­rael be­comes in­creas­ingly will­ing to strike in Syria to pre­vent Iran from set­ting up per­ma­nent mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions.

Rus­sia’s re­cent cam­paign against Ghouta en­sured that the Ira­nian mili­tias par­tic­i­pated only in a lim­ited way, af­ter Rus­sian in­ter­ven­tion at an or­gan­i­sa­tional and train­ing level of the army.

For ex­am­ple, the Fifth Corps was cre­ated and trained by the Rus­sians, he said.

Col Hassoun and oth­ers said that the Fifth Corps had been cre­ated to re­place the Na­tional De­fence Forces, a con­glom­er­a­tion of pro-gov­ern­ment mili­tias that was set up with as­sis­tance from Ira­nian train­ers in late 2012.

“The Rus­sians deal with spe­cific lead­ers in the regime of Bashar Al As­sad, so that they are loyal to Rus­sia and not to Iran and sup­port these lead­ers and some­times threaten them to con­trol them and thus con­trol de­ci­sions within the army,” Col Hassoun said.

In many lo­cal cease­fires, the Rus­sian mil­i­tary ap­pears al­most to have taken the Syr­ian mil­i­tary out of the equa­tion.

“They’ve also been in­volved in prisoner re­leases and ex­changes,” said Lama Fakih, deputy di­rec­tor for Hu­man Rights Watch in the Mid­dle East and North Africa.

Still, Ms Fakih said, it is of­ten dif­fi­cult to de­ter­mine the ac­tual level of Rus­sian in­volve­ment.

“The Rus­sian gov­ern­ment hasn’t been trans­par­ent about mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions and ma­noeu­vres, which makes it dif­fi­cult to say cat­e­gor­i­cally how they’re in­volved,” she said.

“There has been spec­u­la­tion the Rus­sians were very heav­ily in­volved in the bomb­ing cam­paign in Ghouta but we’re left to sort of piece it to­gether. The US-led coali­tion, to take a coun­ter­point, does pub­li­cise when it is in­volved in strikes or op­er­a­tions in the coun­try, so there is some mea­sure of trans­parency.”

In eastern Syria, res­i­dents of the city of Deir Ez­zor also said there was a size­able pres­ence of Rus­sian troops and mil­i­tary con­trac­tors.

“They are there for the pro­tec­tion of oil­fields,” said one res­i­dent.

In Tar­tous on Syria’s Mediter­ranean coast, where Rus­sia has a naval base, res­i­dents said Rus­sian of­fi­cers’ fam­i­lies have joined them, liv­ing in build­ings near the base.

“The Rus­sians rarely in­ter­act with civil­ians. Some­times they go to the mar­ket but they don’t speak with any­body,” said a jour­nal­ist in the coastal city who works under the pseu­do­nym Ali­mar Lazkani.

“The mil­i­tary post in which they ex­ist is guarded by a bat­tal­ion from the Fourth Divi­sion,” Lazkani said, re­fer­ring to an­other Rus­sian-cre­ated Syr­ian force. “The regime doesn’t have any­thing any more. The Rus­sians are in charge of ev­ery­thing. If the Rus­sians leave, a great chaos will en­sue.”

Col Hassoun said such heavy Rus­sian in­volve­ment was the price the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment had paid to sur­vive.

“The Rus­sians in­ter­vened at a cru­cial mo­ment when the regime and the Ira­ni­ans were in their worst time. That is why the Rus­sians im­posed their con­di­tions. Now they con­trol ev­ery­thing,” he said.

Lazkani said Rus­sian mil­i­tary per­son­nel have de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion for try­ing to in­tro­duce stricter rules among the Syr­ian mil­i­tary and the mili­tias that have sup­planted it.

“The Rus­sians are try­ing to im­ple­ment a strict mil­i­tary sys­tem. They broke taboos in the Syr­ian army and de­stroyed the pres­tige of the Syr­ian of­fi­cers in front of their sol­diers,” Lazkani said.

“If a Syr­ian colonel is caught by a Rus­sian lieu­tenant drink­ing matte [a tea-like drink], he can be pun­ished by the Rus­sian. If a Syr­ian of­fi­cer raises his voice over the Rus­sian, most prob­a­bly he will be beaten up,” Lazkani said.

The Rus­sians deal with spe­cific lead­ers in the regime of Bashar Al As­sad, so they are loyal to Rus­sia and not to Iran COL FATEH HASSOUN Syr­ian mil­i­tary of­fi­cer who de­fected


Rus­sian sol­diers wait at the Wafideen Camp for buses car­ry­ing Jaish Al Is­lam fight­ers moved from Douma on Thurs­day

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