Syrian rebel shelling destroys at least seven Russian planes, report says

Russian dailys report points to countrys single biggest loss of military hardware since launching airstrikes in Syria in late 2015

At least seven Russian planes were destroyed by rebel shelling at the Khmeimim airbase in Syria on 31 December, the Russian daily Kommersant reported late on Wednesday, citing two sources.

If confirmed, the attack would mark the single biggest loss of military hardware for Russia since it launched airstrikes in Syria in autumn 2015. More than 10 servicemen were wounded in the shelling by radical Islamists, the report said.

At least four Su-24 bombers, two Su-35S fighters and an An-72 transport plane, as well as an ammunition depot, were destroyed by the shelling, Kommersant said on its website, citing two military-diplomatic sources.

The attack came days after Vladimir Putin made a triumphant visit to Khmeimim, where he met his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad and told the Russian air force detachment at the base: You are coming back home with victory.

Kommersant said the Russian defence ministry had not commented. Reuters was not able to immediately reach the ministry.

Earlier on Wednesday, the ministry said a Mi-24 helicopter had crash-landed in Syria due to a technical fault and two pilots died.

Last month, Russia began establishing a permanent presence at Hmeymim and a naval base at Tartous although Putin has ordered a significant withdrawal of his military from Syria, declaring its work largely done.

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In 1939, I didnt hear war coming. Now its thundering approach cant be ignored | Harry Leslie Smith

Author Harry Leslie Smith remembers the prelude to the second world war and there are worrying echoes now

A chill of remembrance has come over me during this August month. It feels as if the 2017 summer breeze is being scattered by the winds of war blowing from across our world towards Britain, just like they were in 1939.

In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia eviscerates Yemen with the same ferocity as Mussolini did to Ethiopia when I was child in 1935. The hypocrisy of Britains government and elite class ensures that innocent blood still flows in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Theresa Mays government insists that peace can only be achieved through the proliferation of weapons of war in conflict zones. Venezuela teeters towards anarchy and foreign intervention while in the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte protected by his alliance with Britain and the US murders the vulnerable for the crime of trying to escape their poverty through drug addiction.

Because I am old, now 94, I recognise these omens of doom. Chilling signs are everywhere, perhaps the biggest being that the US allows itself to be led by Donald Trump, a man deficient in honour, wisdom and just simple human kindness. It is as foolish for Americans to believe that their generals will save them from Trump as it was for liberal Germans to believe the military would protect the nation from Hitlers excesses.

Britain also has nothing to be proud of. Since the Iraq war our country has been on a downward decline, as successive governments have eroded democracy and social justice, and savaged the welfare state with austerity, leading us into the cul de sac of Brexit. Like Trump, Brexit cannot be undone by liberal sanctimony it can only be altered if the neoliberal economic model is smashed, as if it were a statue of a dictator, by a liberated people.

After years of Tory government, Britain is less equipped to change the course of history for the good than we were under Neville Chamberlain, when Nazism was appeased in the 1930s. In fact, no nation in Europe or North America has anything to crow about. Each is rife with inequality, massive corporate tax avoidance which is just legitimised corruption and a neoliberalism that has eroded societies.

Summer should be comforting but it isnt this year. Looking at the young today, when I watch them in their leisure; I catch a fearful resemblance with the faces of the young from my generation in the summer of 1939. When I am out in town, I listen to their laughter, I watch them enjoying a pint or wooing one another, and I am afraid for them.

This August resembles too much that of 1939; the last summer of peace until 1945. Then aged 16 and still wet behind the ears, Id go to pictures with my mates and wed laugh at the newsreels of Hitler and other fascist monsters that lived beyond what we thought was our reach. Little did we know in that August 1939, life without peace, without carnage, without air raids, without the blitz, could be measured in days. I did not hear the thundering approach of war, but as an old man I hear it now for my grandchildrens generation. I hope I am wrong. But I am petrified for them.

Harry Leslie Smiths latest book Dont Let My Past Be Your Future is published by Constable & Robinson on 14 September

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Assads slaughterhouse defies description, but its horrifyingly real | Kate Allen

According to Amnesty, Saydnaya prison is an extermination centre where starvation and torture are the prelude to mass hangings, up to 50 at a time

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Russia holds memorial service for ambassador shot dead in Turkey

Dozens attend open-casket ceremony for Andrei Karlov, killed in Ankara by man shouting Dont forget Aleppo

Russia has staged a sombre memorial ceremony for Andrei Karlov, the ambassador to Turkey shot dead in Ankara by a man shouting Dont forget Aleppo and Allahu Akbar.

Russia and Turkey described the assassination on Monday as a failed attempt to derail a rapprochement between Moscow and Ankara, which has seen them cooperate more closely over Syria, where they have backed different sides in the conflict.

Diplomats and family members gathered at the Russian foreign ministry, a looming Stalin-era skyscraper in central Moscow, to bid farewell to Karlov, who was 62.

TV footage showed Karlovs body lying in an open casket in the buildings marble lobby, flanked by a uniformed honour guard, as mourners including the prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, and the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, approached to lay flowers.

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is also expected to pay his respects at the ministry.

Russian ambassador to Turkey shot dead in Ankara art gallery

Karlov was a Soviet-trained diplomat who worked in North and South Korea during the 1990s and 2000s, and was sent to Turkey in 2013.

His name was etched into a slab of pink marble on the wall of the foreign ministry, along with the names of Russias most illustrious diplomats.

Proceedings will move to Moscows gold-domed Christ the Saviour cathedral later on Thursday, where the head of the Russian Orthodox church will lead a ceremony.

Putin, who said he knew the ambassador personally, has posthumously given Karlov the Hero of the Russian Federation award, the countrys highest honorary title.

We must know who directed the killers hand, Putin said after the attack, promising retribution.

Turkish authorities have identified the assassin as Mevlut Mert Altntas, 22, who had worked for Ankaras riot police.

Recep Tayyip Erdoan, the president of Turkey, has blamed the killing on the network of the Muslim cleric Fethullah Glen, which Glen denies. The Kremlin, however, has said it is too early to say who was behind the assassination.

Russia has flown a team of investigators to Turkey to help with the investigation.

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Assad is thriving on the wests hesitation. The time for standing back is over | Ranj Alaaldin

Ceasefires and humanitarian corridors are only temporary fixes to the plight of Syrias civilians. To make a difference, the west must engage on the ground

The atrocities being committed on the ground in Aleppo by Iranian proxies fighting alongside the Syrian regime, and from the skies by Russian planes, as horrifying as they are, should come as no surprise. Aleppo has been under siege for many months; its population has been brutally and indiscriminately attacked into submission and the scorched-earth policy adopted by the Assad regime, Russia and Iran comes as the international community has been focusing its attention on the US elections and the ongoing war with Isis.

Where does Syria go from here? The summary killings currently taking place, the rounding up of any male of fighting age and the oppression of the civilian population more generally was wholly predictable. These atrocities will continue. Some have suggested a ceasefire that can allow for an evacuation of the civilian population, like the one that was negotiated yesterday by Turkey and Russia but that seems to be falling apart already.

Generally, ceasefires can bring respite and allow humanitarian actors to go into conflict areas and do their job. However, whether it is in Syria or other conflict zones, it is often counterintuitive to aim for a ceasefire without the leverage that can force belligerents into accepting its terms, that can help change the political and security environment so that it enables respect for human rights, and that can pressure (and penalise) the belligerents.

As multiple other ceasefires in Syria have shown, dictators and armed groups do not envisage a post-conflict scenario that views the rule of law, human rights monitors and humanitarian organisations playing a dominant role. Syrias post-conflict environment will be dominated by sectarian militias, the secret police and death squads, who will kill and torture in prison cells and far-flung compounds and who will do so away from the eyes and ears of the outside world.

The irony is that many of the Shia militias propping up the Assad regime will be all too familiar with the dynamics of the war in Syria. Many of them are Iraqi Shia militias that come from the generation of young and destitute Shias who suffered Baath party oppression in the 1990s. The 1991 Shia uprising in Iraq was also ignored by the international community, which effectively provided Saddam Hussein with carte blanche to indiscriminately kill and torture more than a 100,000 Shias after the Gulf war.

Saddam lost control of the Kurdish north after 1991 as a result of the wests no-fly zone and he was weakened and left without an effective military in the rest of the country. However, his brutal grip and repression of the Shias and other sections of the Iraqi population continued by way of sub-state actors such as tribes and paramilitary forces. These actors often had differences with the Baath regime, but were either coerced or played off against one another to prevent another insurgency from materialising.

In Assads Syria, it is also localised armed groups and militias who will continue to shape the political and security environment, and provide the Assad regime with an efficient and potentially cost-effective means of reorganising and consolidating its authority over the country. However, that process could take many years to implement successfully, meaning there will be gaps and opportunities for the west to exploit. Moreover, contrary to conventional wisdom, the nexus that connects the Assad regime, Iran and Russia (along with Shia militia groups) is not irresistible and only a recently emerged alliance that is vulnerable on multiple fronts.

Unlike Husseins Iraq, Syria is firmly on the radar of the international community. Opposition groups will not be short of arms and financial resources any time soon. The Assad regime will have to contend with insurgencies for many years. That also means there is an opportunity to direct the way these resources are being invested, so that it is the moderate rebel groups that are empowered in a war that will continue for some time to come.

Moderate actors still exist, but have so far been dependent on, and sidelined by, jihadi groups. The Arab world and Turkey have been in disarray and can no longer be relied upon to achieve this task. They have been unable to match the discipline and organisation of the Assad regimes backers, Iran and Russia.

The new US administration and its European allies can remedy past wrongs by creating the leverage that does not exist right now. It would take merely a fraction of the armed forces the west has at its disposal to start enabling a political and security environment that can help alleviate the plight of the civilian population in Aleppo and that can help prevent similar atrocities elsewhere as the conflict develops.

Beyond adding a coercive element to the strategy, it is a combination of conviction and leadership that can alleviate the plight of Syrias civilian population. Temporary fixes like ceasefires or humanitarian corridors only provide political cover for, and distract attention away from, further atrocities and human rights abuses. Calls for a no-fly zone have been dismissed in the past, as have other measures seen as having the potential to escalate the conflict; but we mustnt forget that it is the wests averseness to risk that the Assad regime and its backers in Moscow and Tehran thrive on. Where the international community disengages, dictators and armed gangs fill the vacuum.

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Aleppo evacuations: first group of wounded leaving city’s east live

Follow live updates as long-awaited operation to evacuate civilians from east Aleppo begins

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Hundreds leave besieged east Aleppo on first day of evacuation

Red Cross says thousands more are due to make journey in coming days under deal brokered by Turkey and Russia

More than 2,000 people have been evacuated from besieged districts of east Aleppo under a deal brokered by Turkey and Russia and overseen by the Red Cross, and thousands more are expected to make the journey in the coming hours and days.

Thursdays evacuations, carried out using ambulances and green buses, will end months of deprivation and suffering for some of the desperate residents of east Aleppo. They have been living under siege in a shrinking patch of land controlled by the opposition, surviving bombardment by forces loyal to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Iranian-backed militias and the Russian air force.

More than 1,000 people are thought to have been killed in the Syrian governments latest campaign in Aleppo, and tens of thousands more have been displaced.

Many of those in the besieged areas have been living without functioning hospitals or much running water or electricity. They faced a choice of making a last stand or surrendering to the regimes allied militias, who the UN said had killed civilians in newly reclaimed areas.

The departures marked the beginning of the closing chapter of the rebellion in Aleppo. Half of the city was seized by the opposition in 2012 and since then it has been divided, the last major urban area in Syria where the rebels maintained an active presence.

Aleppo evacuation begins as Assad hails liberation

A convoy of 13 ambulances and 20 buses transported nearly 1,000 people to a rebel-held town west of the city, and then returned to pick up a second group numbering 1,198.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which is overseeing the evacuation deal along with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, said the evacuations would continue through the night.

The UN humanitarian adviser for Syria, Jan Egeland, said the operation was three-pronged, involving the evacuation of the sick and wounded, vulnerable civilians, and fighters. Thousands of people are in need of evacuation, but the first and most urgent thing is wounded, sick and children, including orphans, he said.

He estimated the number of civilians to be evacuated at 30,000. He criticised the failure of the international community to come to the aid of Aleppos people, tweeting:

Jan Egeland (@NRC_Egeland)

For 3000 years #Aleppo gave so much to world civilisations. How come, when Aleppo’s people needed us the most, we gave so little back?

December 15, 2016

A teacher in east Aleppo, who was waiting to be evacuated, said there were mixed feelings among residents, with some angry they were being forced to leave and others happy that the violence would stop.

He said some locals were burning their belongings in their homes so they would not be looted by pro-regime forces.

Most of them are happy they are going out. Some of them are angry theyre leaving their city. I saw some of them crying, and thats almost my feeling in a way, he said. Its difficult to leave your belongings and know your enemy will take them.

Aleppo evacuation map

The new deal to evacuate the people of east Aleppo came after the collapse of an agreement the previous day over Iranian objections. Tens of thousands of civilians who remained trapped in opposition-held areas of the city without food, water or medicine came under a renewed hail of artillery and airstrikes after the deal collapsed.

The latest agreement allows for the evacuation of civilians and wounded, as well as rebel fighters bearing small arms, from besieged areas of the city, with Turkey and Russia acting as guarantors. The deal began with a ceasefire at midnight local time in Aleppo.

As a concession to Tehran, which is backing the militias spearheading the offensive into Aleppo, wounded civilians will be evacuated from Fua and Kefraya, two Shia villages in the province of Idlib that have been surrounded by rebels for years.

Syrian state media said on Thursday that 29 trucks and ambulances were heading to the villages.

Sources in east Aleppo said shelling in the city had stopped at midnight local time, but gunfire was reported on Thursday morning before the ICRC said the evacuation had begun.

The White Helmets civil defence force, which is based in east Aleppo, said one of its members had been injured by a sniper while clearing an evacuation route and its ambulances in the enclave had come under small-arms fire.

The effort to treat and house tens of thousands of civilians, many of whom have had no access to medicine or much food for the past several weeks, is likely to be immense. The Turkish government has said it is prepared to receive the wounded and is readying refugee camps to house as many as 80,000 people in northern Syria and inside Turkey.

The aid organisation Mercy Corps said its workers were ready to provide food, blankets, money and other supplies to the civilians arriving in the western countryside of Aleppo, which is under opposition control.

Assad hailed the fall of Aleppo as a historic turning point. In a video released by his office, the Syrian president said: What is happening today is the writing of history.

In a philosophical and whimsical message, he talked about the fall of Aleppo in the context of the birth of Christ and the fall of the USSR. The reclaiming of Aleppo would be of similar historical significance and a key turning point in the conflict, he said.

The UK foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, summoned the Iranian and Russian ambassadors to convoy his profound concern over the humanitarian crisis, telling them that they had failed to uphold their obligations under international law, specifically by failing to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid to civilians during the siege.

John Kerry: Assad regime carrying out nothing short of a massacre in Aleppo

They deserve no credit for the fact that an evacuation appears to be under way today, Johnson said, adding that it was vital that the UN now oversaw the evacuation process and that all civilians and non-combatants were not punished. Johnson said he was deeply disturbed by reports that some of those being evacuated had been taken away by government forces.

Graffiti left by residents in the city for the militias and pro-Assad forces who were expected to enter after their departure highlighted the mixed feelings of those who had to abandon their homes.

One message said: We will return, Aleppo. Our destroyed buildings are a witness of our resistance and your criminality.

Another condemned the destruction meted out by the Assad regime and its allies on east Aleppo: Under every destroyed building are families buried with their dreams by Assad and his allies.

  • Additional reporting by Patrick Wintour

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