Putin: Russia capable of rebuilding forces in Syria within hours

Russia is capable of rebuilding its military forces in Syria within "just a few hours" if needed, President Vladimir Putin said Thursday.

"We would not want to do this. Military escalation is not our choice," Putin said at a meeting with Russian servicemen, according to state news agency TASS.

"We mainly hope for common sense on all sides, for both the Syrian authorities and the opposition to be committed to the peace process," Putin said.

Putin said Russia's military campaign in Syria, which lasted six months, cost 33 billion roubles (480 million dollars).

Russian airstrikes targeting rebels in Syria provided much-needed support to that country's president, Bashar al-Assad, a longtime ally whose regime made significant territorial gains as a result.

The Russian leader said the campaign's primary objective was to fight terrorism and prevent it from spilling over to Russia.

Meanwhile, a senior UN official in Geneva called for Russia to continue using its clout with the Syrian government to ensure humanitarian aid supplies.

Russia can push the Syrian government to allow aid supplies to civilians in areas surrounded by state troops, said Jan Egeland, who leads a United Nations task force for providing aid to Syrians.

"I hope Russia will be as instrumental in helping our humanitarian access as before," the Norwegian official, who also advises the UN's special envoy to Syria, told reporters.

Although UN aid agencies have been able to reach several areas with 39 convoys in the past weeks, more than 300,000 people remain cut off from aid in six areas surrounded by the government side, according to new UN data.

"It is in violation of international law to prevent us from going," Egeland said.

On Monday, Putin ordered the Russian military to withdraw the majority of its forces from Syria, saying their task there was "completely fulfilled."

Russia has said it will keep at least 800 servicemen, as well as some warplanes and powerful S-400 missile systems, in Syria to protect its airbase and naval facility there.

The head of Russia's air force, General Viktor Bondarev, said in comments carried by TASS on Thursday that the military should complete the ordered withdrawal within three days.

More than 200 members of Russia's armed forces have been honoured for their actions in Syria, and at least another 300 are expected to receive such decorations, Bondarev said.

Numerous pilots will also be promoted to higher ranks for their service in Syria, he added.

With Russia's support, al-Assad's military regained significant territory from rebel groups, while the United States - Russia's main geopolitical rival - reversed its calls for al-Assad's immediate removal, permitting him to stay as part of a peace deal.

Syria's civil war, which began with a government crackdown on a protest movement against al-Assad, has lasted more than five years and claimed the lives of at least 250,000 people.

Rebels in Syria have received support from some Middle Eastern and Western powers, including the United States, which accuse al-Assad's government of committing crimes against humanity, including mass killings of civilians.

Last month, Russia and the US brokered a ceasefire deal that appears to be predominantly holding. However, the extremist groups Islamic State and al-Nusra Front, an affiliate of al-Qaeda, were not included in the deal.

Last update: Thu, 17/03/2016 - 18:06

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