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Russia plays up role as peacemaker, donor in Syria
By Maria Antonova
Dar Al Kabirah, Syria (AFP) Sept 17, 2017

US urges Syria cooperation with Russia after strike
Oslo (AFP) Sept 17, 2017 - Washington and Moscow have held high-level talks aimed at shoring up military "deconfliction" zones in eastern Syria after Russia was accused of targeting US-backed forces battling the Islamic State group in an air strike, a top US general said Sunday.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Washington-backed Kurd and Arab fighters, said Saturday that several of its fighters were injured in a bombing by Russian warplanes east of the Euphrates River near Syria's oil-rich province of Deir Ezzor.

A Russian military spokesman denied targeting the group, though the coalition claimed that the Russians knew the zone contained SDF fighters.

General Joe Dunford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he had spoken to his Russian counterpart General Valery Gerasimov and that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had also addressed the issue with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

"I spoke with Gerasimov, Secretary Tillerson has spoken to foreign minister Lavrov. We have had communications at three different levels," Dunford told reporters as he flew back from a NATO Military Committee meeting in Tirana.

He said Russian forces were pursuing IS fighters who had fled across the Euphrates when their jets struck close enough to injure SDF troops in the area.

"We have been engaged at every level to re-establish deconfliction at the Euphrates river. It couldn't be more complex and crowded in that area, and so deconfliction is more difficult right now than it was a few months ago," Dunford said.

"We haven't resolved all the issues right now. We'll get through that," he added.

Regime troops are engaged in an offensive against the provincial capital, Deir Ezzor city, while SDF fighters are battling the jihadists further east across the Euphrates.

The SDF and Russian-backed Syrian government forces are conducting parallel but separate offensives against IS in Deir Ezzor, the last Syrian province still largely held by the jihadists.

Tillerson is to meet Lavrov in New York on Sunday ahead of this week's UN General Assembly, according to Tillerson's updated public schedule.

At a mobile medical clinic in central Syria's Homs province, a Russian doctor takes an elderly woman's blood pressure. Nearby, his colleague examines a dazed teenager on a gurney.

"Take half a pill in the morning and the second half at night," the Russian doctor tells the woman through a translator.

The pop-up facility outside rebel-held Dar al-Kabira in central Syria is one of several medical units deployed by Moscow, which has remained a close ally of President Bashar al-Assad throughout the six-year conflict.

Russia began an air war in support of Assad in 2015, swinging the conflict in his favour, but it is now increasingly seeking to depict itself as a peacemaker and humanitarian donor in the war-devastated country.

The evidence is on clear display near Dar al-Kabira, where Russia is monitoring a "de-escalation zone" between regime and rebel forces agreed in August.

This week, civilians from both sides could be seen queueing in separate lines to get sacks of food bearing the slogan "Russia is with you!"

Russian army Colonel Alexander Sazonov, head of the Dar al-Kabira checkpoint, said the buffer zone had been set up two months ago and was already improving the situation for civilians.

"Before, there was no medical aid for five years, and people couldn't meet their loved ones," Sazonov said, during a tightly controlled press tour organised by the Russian military.

- 'Help from Russia' -

The zone in Homs province is part of a deal agreed in May by Russia, regime ally Iran, and rebel backer Turkey to create four "de-escalation" areas in Syria.

Syria's conflict has killed more than 330,000 people since it began in March 2011 with anti-government protests, and it has wrecked the country's economy.

Fighting, damage to infrastructure and the use of siege tactics have plunged parts of the population into poverty and created food and medical shortages.

Sazonov says about 10 tonnes of aid are distributed weekly at Dar al-Kabira, insisting that "we would like there to be more aid".

"But right now Russia is the only one doing any of this."

Russian trucks marked "Help to Syria from Russia" shuttled in aid packages containing sugar, grain and canned meat.

"From here it's about 500 metres (yards) to the fighters," Sazonov said.

"If you're not a fighter with blood on your hands, you can go in and out."

Residents crossing from the Syrian government side of the checkpoint -- adorned with portraits of Assad -- had their belongings and IDs checked before hurrying through.

Nawaf Ramadan, a local resident, had arrived from the government side to collect a sack of food.

"I always come here," he told AFP. "My house had some damage but I have repaired it. We don't have a lot of money to buy food."

- 'Only talk to the Russians' -

On the rebel side, Russian officers look for influential locals who can spread the word about humanitarian aid shipments, Russian military spokesman Igor Konashenkov told AFP.

He touted a recent effort to target needs at the start of the school year, with Russia providing school supplies for residents living on both sides of the checkpoint, including desks, he said.

Aid convoys are protected by Russian military police.

"Our job is to guarantee security. There could be somebody armed, there could be instances of a crowd crush," said one officer, who gave his name only as Artyom.

"There is enough food but it's human nature (to push)."

Sazonov said hostilities have ceased since the zone was established and there have been "no violations", though the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, has reported sporadic infractions.

Every day, about 10,000 people cross back and forth through the checkpoint, he said.

Three other de-escalation zones in Syria have been agreed as part of an accord reached earlier this year in the Kazakh capital Astana.

One lies near the capital Damascus, another is in the country's south, and the final one in the northwest Idlib province was agreed on Friday in Astana.

Konashenkov said the real goal of the de-escalation zones was to get the sides to reconcile, a process in which he insisted Russian participation was key.

"It starts off with them saying 'We won't talk to each other, we'll only talk to the Russians'," he said.

"Russians are perceived normally everywhere."

US-backed force says hit by Russian, regime strikes in east Syria
Beirut (AFP) Sept 16, 2017
A US-backed force battling the Islamic State group in eastern Syria accused Russian warplanes on Saturday of bombing its fighters for the first time in the complex war. But Russia's military spokesman denied targeting the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Arab and Kurdish fighters supported by Washington. "This is not possible. Why would we bomb them?" military spokesman Igor Kona ... read more

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