Russia’s defense minister said Tuesday that the Russian military has begun establishing a permanent presence at naval and air bases in Syria.
“Last week, the supreme commander-in-chief approved the structure and the personnel strength of the Tartus and Hmeimim bases. We have started forming a permanent grouping there,” the TASS news agency quoted Sergei Shoigu as saying.
Shoigu’s comments came as the upper chamber of the Russian parliament voted to extend Russia’s lease at the Tartus naval base in Syria for 49 years.
The vote at the Federation Council on Tuesday followed a similar endorsement by the lower chamber last week.
The agreement, which now needs Russian President Vladimir Putin’s signature before it comes into effect, allows Russia to keep its warships at the Mediterranean base for 49 years. TASS reported that this includes Russian nuclear-powered vessels.
The Russian moves to establish a permanent military presence in Syria come after Putin ordered a partial withdrawal of Russian troops from the country during a visit to the Hmeimim air base earlier this month.
Hmeimim airbase is in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia, the heartland of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s Alawite territory. The visit marked Putin’s first trip to Syria and came as Assad’s forces retook control over most of the country with the help of Russian air cover.
Russia began its bombing raids in September 2015 in support of Assad’s beleaguered forces. Those strikes have helped Assad regain control over much of war-ravaged Syria.
The airbase served as the main foothold for the air campaign.
Separately, Syrian rebels and opposition groups on Tuesday rejected Russia’s proposed peace talks, accusing Moscow of failing to pressure its ally Assad to end the conflict.
In a series of statements, 40 rebel groups, including some of Syria’s most prominent, as well as political opposition groups, said the talks expected next month are an attempt to “circumvent” the UN-led process, which has made virtually no progress since it began in 2014.
The rebel groups said Moscow has asked them to give up their demand for Assad to step down.
“We reject this, and we affirm that Russia is an aggressor that has committed war crimes against Syrians,” the statement signed by 40 rebel groups said. “Russia has not contributed with a single move to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people and it has not pressured the regime it claims it guarantees to move an inch toward any real path toward a resolution.”
The talks are scheduled for January 29-30 in Sochi, and were announced after talks among Russia and Iran, which back the government, and Turkey, which supports the opposition.
Syria’s government said it would attend the talks. Assad told reporters recently that the Sochi talks have a clear agenda of discussing new elections and possibly amending the constitution.
The fate of Assad has been the main point of contention in all previous rounds of talks. The opposition has long called for a transitional period in which Assad would have no role, something the government refuses to even consider.
While localized cease-fire agreements brokered by Russia, Iran and Turkey have reduced the violence across much of Syria, the government has kept up pressure on insurgents on the outskirts of Damascus and in the northwestern rebel-held Idlib province.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 20 people have been killed since Monday in airstrikes in southern Idlib, where the government is waging its first major ground offensive in years. The Observatory and the Syrian Civil Defense said in the past 24 hours, government aircraft have dropped dozens of barrel bombs in the area, an indiscriminate weapon that has killed thousands over the course of the civil war.
Elsewhere in Syria, the state news agency SANA said a military jet crashed in the northern suburbs of Hama after “terrorist groups” fired on it. It said the pilot was killed. Rebel groups issued competing claims of having downed the plane.
The Observatory and the activist-operated Damascus media center reported that five sick residents were evacuated from eastern Ghouta on Tuesday. The government recently tightened its siege on the rebel-held suburb, home to nearly 400,000 people. The UN says the government has refused to allow hundreds of Syrians requiring medical treatment to reach hospitals minutes away.