BEIRUT — The leader of Lebanon Hezbollah terror group has welcomed what he described as Russia’s growing “combat presence” in Syria, saying it would have a significant impact on the war in the neighboring country.
Moscow has denied that it is building up its presence in Syria to protect its long-time ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, but says instead that it wants to help him fight the Islamic State group.
Hassan Nasrallah said Friday that the deployment of Russian warplanes and precision missiles, as well as “resources with operating teams” was a “great development” that would influence the situation on the ground.
Nasrallah spoke on Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV.
He said Russia had been talking with allies about an expanded alliance against the IS after US-led airstrikes failed to uproot the extremists.
Russia has been building up its military presence at an air base in Syria, including fighter jets, tanks, helicopters, air defense missiles, personnel and other equipment. Russia is a traditional ally of Syria and has supported Assad, who has clung to power despite a US-led international effort to force him to step down.
In an interview taped with CBS’ “60 Minutes” for broadcast Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin was asked if his country was “trying to save the Assad administration.”
Putin responded, “Well, you’re right.” He said any effort to destroy Assad’s government “will create a situation which you can witness now in the other countries of the region, … where all the state institutions are disintegrated.”
The Russian leader added, “There is no other solution to the Syrian crisis than strengthening the effective government structures and rendering them help in fighting terrorism.”
US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Thursday that he would talk to his Russian counterpart again about Moscow’s military intentions in Syria, but cautioned that if the Russians insist on fighting the Islamic State without simultaneously pursuing a political solution to Syria’s civil war they will be “pouring gasoline” on the conflict.
In comments at the Pentagon, Carter said the Obama administration is concerned that Russia could use the warplanes and other military force it has recently assembled in Syria to attack the Islamic State or the moderate Syrian rebels who are fighting against the government of President Bashar Assad. Carter declined to say whether he believes the Russian buildup is intended to undertake airstrikes or other offensive military action.
“We’re going to be talking to them about their intentions both on the political track and the military track,” Carter said.
Syrian activists said Friday a UN-backed truce deal had been reached for two key Syrian battleground areas that will see the transfer of thousands of Shiite and Sunni civilians and fighters from one area to another.
The deal will end months of fighting between Sunni insurgents and pro-government forces, including fighters from Hezbollah, and the besieging of civilians.
The controversial transfer will allow a group of Sunni insurgents operating under a coalition called Jaish al-Fatah,or Army of Conquest, and their families safe passage out of the Zabadani area, along the Lebanese border.
In exchange, 10,000 Shiites, civilians and wounded pro-government fighters from two villages in rebel-controlled northern Idlib province will be allowed to leave, said Abdullah al-Muhaysini, a Saudi militant cleric living in Syria.
The Sunni insurgents will head from Zabadani to the rebel-controlled Idlib province, while the Shiites will settle in the government-controlled suburb of Damascus, the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
If implemented, the agreement would be another rare example of international diplomacy successfully brokering an end to fighting in specific areas in Syria. The UN previously brokered a cease-fire in 2014 to end over two years of siege on the central city of Homs.
But the deal would also underline concerns about forced demographic changes in the Syrian civil war, now in its fifth year, which has already displaced nearly half of Syria’s pre-war population.
The opposition has accused Assad’s government of working with its allies, including Iran, on moving populations around to empty government-held areas of Sunnis. The insurgents against Assad are largely Sunnis, including foreign fighters from around the region and elsewhere who joined the war.
Nasrallah said Iran played a key mediating role in the UN-brokered deal during negotiations held in Turkey, representing the Syrian government at the table. He said decisions were, however, made by the government.
Nasrallah said the deal will not force people to relocate but that civilians who want to leave Zabadani with the militants are free to do so if they want. He added that the deal allows for humanitarian supplies and goods to reach the two villages by road for those remaining behind.
UN spokeswoman Jessy Chahine told The Associated Press on Friday that the UN facilitated contacts between the different parties but would not elaborate on details of the deal.
The Observatory said the six-month truce deal would also include the release of rebel detainees. Turkey and Iran also sponsored the deal, it added.
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press.