At the invitation of Russian President Vladimir Putin, embattled Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad visited Moscow on Tuesday, shaking hands and smiling for the assembled press. This marks the first trip abroad for al-Assad since his administration instigated a civil war by launching airstrikes against protesters.
Putin thanked him for coming to Moscow “despite a tragic situation in your country.”
This visit comes on the heels of renewed airstrikes by Russian forces against targets in Syria, which Putin insists are terrorist strongholds.
“I would like to express enormous gratitude to the whole leadership of the Russian Federation,” al-Assad said, “Thank you for standing up for the unity of Syria and its independence.”
Vladimir Putin’s air campaign in Syria has been met with serious concern from both western governments as well as the Syrian people themselves.
Mohammed Khdeir is a volunteer with the Syrian Civil Defense, an emergency response group founded to provide aid to civilians injured by the fighting which has come to dominate their daily lives. Airstrikes ordered by Putin have reduced his city to rubble.
“There is no life inside the city at all,” he told NBC News, “No electricity, no water, people are scared of sending their kids to school.”
The airstrikes bring massive destruction, reducing buildings to rubble. Even so, Mohammed can tell the difference between the Syrian airstrikes and the ones ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Russian strikes are more powerful, their area of destruction is bigger compared to the Syrian strikes,” he says.
Vladimir Putin’s airstrikes have been concentrated in the Northwest and Western portions of Syria. Mohammed Khdeir’s home is in Western Syria, in the Idlib province. It’s here that Colonel-General Andre Kartapolov, a chief official in Putin’s military, told NBC News that Russian pilots have flown more than 60 sorties since September 30, 2015. They’re targeting ISIS command posts, he says, bringing terrorist targets to their knees.
ISIS has no known presence in the province of Idlib. It is, however, a stronghold for anti-Assad rebels.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has condemned Putin’s actions, and the strikes in Idlib, telling BBC News that Vladimir Putin is making the situation worse.
“[Putin] is not discriminating between ISIS and rebels,” Cameron said, “He’s really making the situation worse.”
Vladimir Putin’s military action in the region has recently been focused on fortifications in the province of Idlib, which Assad’s forces lost to rebels in April. Capturing the strategically placed city of Jisr Al-Shughour was a major win for the rebel forces, which allowed them to launch attacks against the Putin-backed Assad forces in the coastal province of Latakia.
Still, ISIS has no known presence in the Idlib province, but it seems that Vladimir Putin’s airstrikes are focused on paving the way for Assad’s forces to uproot the rebels from the stronghold of Jisr Al-Shughour.
The munitions used by Vladimir Putin’s military forces have been “unguided,” and as a result have led to massive civilian casualties. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that of the 370 people killed by the strikes ordered by Putin, 127 of them have been civilians – including 36 children, and 34 women. On Sunday, Putin’s airstrikes hit two hospitals in the Syrian capital of Aleppo, the Associated Press reports.
Comparatively, the U.S.-led airstrikes against Assad’s forces and ISIS have killed some 30,000 since 2014, only 137 of which were civilian casualties.
In the wake of the dramatically increasing rate of civilian casualties, a new wave of refugees has been flooding out of Syria. The Associated Press reports that some 35 thousand have been displaced in only the last few days. As we’ve previously reported, many of those civilians are ending up in Turkey and Germany, causing tension between the two countries.
“A long term settlement can only be achieved as part of a political process,” President Vladimir Putin said during the press conference with Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday. He goes on to detail how the Syrian people have been putting up a fight against terrorism for years, but has “achieved positive results recently.”
Are Vladimir Putin’s airstrikes achieving positive results for Syria, or are they just targeting Bashar al-Assad’s political rivals?
[Photos by Getty Images]