Archive for the ‘ Syria ’ Category

Rights group criticizes US-led coalition for Raqqa deaths

October 12, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) — The U.S.-led coalition’s failure to adequately acknowledge and investigate civilian deaths in the Syrian city of Raqqa is “a slap in the face for survivors” trying to rebuild their lives a year after the offensive to oust the Islamic State group, a prominent rights group said Friday.

At a news conference in the Lebanese capital, Amnesty International said 2,521 bodies from the battle for Raqqa have been recovered in the city, the majority killed by coalition airstrikes. It cited a small unit known as the Early Recovery Team working with U.S.-backed predominantly Kurdish forces to recover bodies and bury them. They expect to recover at least 3,000 more bodies.

There are “more bodies underneath the ground than living souls,” said Anna Neistat, Amnesty International’s senior director of global research, who in 2017 with the coalition playing a supporting role recently returned from Syria.

U.S. military spokesman Col. Sean Ryan said the fighting to liberate the citizens of Raqqa from the grip of the Islamic State group “was often house to house against an enemy with no regard for human life” using explosives and booby traps every step of the way. He added that the coalition is aware of the discrepancies of other reports and that the Coalition has based its figures on “supportable evidence and facts.”

Ryan said that liberating the citizens was the goal and “the other choice would be to let ISIS continue to murder, torture, rape and pillage the citizens of Raqqa, and that is unacceptable,” using a different acronym for IS. He added the Coalition could concede a high counts after we checking them against their existing records.

The battle for Raqqa, once a city of 200,000 people, played out over four months as the Kurdish-led Syrian forces fought street by street. The coalition unleashed wave after wave of airstrikes and shell fire until the city was cleared of militants in October 2017.

Amnesty has accused the coalition before of underreporting civilian deaths in the campaign to liberate Raqqa. On Monday, Neistat said most of the bodies recovered so far are believed to be civilians. The U.S.-led coalition said in July that 77 civilians died as a result of its airstrikes on Raqqa between June and October last year. The U.S. and its coalition partners launched their campaign against the Islamic State group in 2014, driving out the militants from their self-proclaimed capital in Raqqa three years later.

Neistat also said the “clock is ticking” for Idlib province, the last opposition stronghold in northwestern Syria. A demilitarized zone negotiated between Turkey and Russia to protect civilians from a government offensive on the northwestern province should be ready by Oct. 15.

Turkish and Russian officials have said that Syrian rebels completed withdrawing their heavy weapons from the front lines in implementation of the deal that’s expected to demilitarize a stretch of 15-20 kilometers (9-12 miles) along the front lines by Oct. 15.

Neistat said the zone is not adequate to protect all the civilians in Idlib province and expressed concern the agreement may not last. She said she fears massive civilian deaths, destruction, displacement, arrests and disappearances, citing previous government offensives in cities like Aleppo.

Neistat called on Russia to pressure the Syrian government to do more to protect the civilian population, highlighting Moscow’s influence on Damascus. “It may not be too late to stop it,” she said. Meanwhile on Friday, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested that his military could soon launch a new operation across the border into northern Syria in zones held by Syrian Kurdish fighters.

Erdogan’s statement renews a threat to expand Turkey’s military operations into areas east of the Euphrates River held by U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds. Ankara considers the Syrian Kurdish militia to be terrorists and part of a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey.

“God willing, very soon … we will leave the terror nests east of the Euphrates in disarray,” he said. He spoke on Friday at a military ceremony honoring Turkish commandos. Turkey launched two incursions into Syria, in 2016 and 2018, into areas west of the Euphrates, pushing Islamic State militants as well as Syrian Kurdish fighters from its border.

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In Syria’s Sweida, young men take up arms to defend villages

October 05, 2018

SWEIDA, Syria (AP) — Maysoun Saab’s eyes filled with tears as she recalled finding her parents bleeding to death on the ground outside their home, minutes after they were shot by Islamic State militants on a killing spree across once tranquil villages they infiltrated in a southeastern corner of Syria.

Within an hour, she had lost her mother, father, brother and 34 other members of her extended family. Overall, more than 200 people were killed and 30 hostages abducted in the coordinated July 25 attacks across Sweida province.

It was one of the biggest single massacres of the Syrian civil war and the worst bloodshed to hit the province since the conflict began in 2011, underscoring the persistent threat posed by the Islamic State group, which has been largely vanquished but retains pockets of territory in southern and eastern Syria.

More than two months after the attack, tensions over the missing hostages — all women and children — are boiling over in Sweida, a mountainous area which is a center for the Druze religious minority. Anger is building up, and young men are taking up arms. This week, the militants shot dead one of the women, 25-year-old Tharwat Abu Ammar, triggering protests and a sit-in outside the Sweida governorate building by relatives enraged at the lack of progress in negotiations to free them.

It’s a stark change for a usually peaceful province that has managed to stay largely on the sidelines of the seven-year Syrian war, and where most villagers work grazing livestock over the surrounding hills.

“We still haven’t really absorbed what happened to us. It’s like a dream or a nightmare that you don’t wake up from,” said Saab, a slender woman with a long braid showing underneath a loose white scarf covering her hair.

During a rare visit to the Sweida countryside by an Associated Press team, armed young men and teens, some as young as 14, patrolled the streets. Some wore military uniforms, others the traditional black baggy pants and white caps worn by Druze villagers. They said the Syrian army had provided them with weapons to form civilian patrols to defend their towns and villages.

Residents recalled a summer day of pure terror that began with gunfire and cries of “Allahu Akbar!” that rang out at 4 a.m. Militants who had slipped into the villages under the cover of darkness knocked on doors, sometimes calling out residents’ names to trick them into opening. Those who did were gunned down. Others were shot in their beds. Women and children were dragged screaming from their homes.

Word of the attack spread in the villages of Shbiki, Shreihi and Rami as neighbors called one another to warn of the militant rampage. A series of suicide bombings unfolded simultaneously in the nearby provincial capital of Sweida.

In Shreihi, a small agricultural village of cement houses, Saab and her husband were asleep in one room, their children, 16-year-old Bayar and 13-year-old Habib, in another when she heard the first burst of gunfire. From her window, she saw the silhouette of her neighbor, Lotfi Saab, and his wife in their house. Then she saw armed men push open the door, point a rifle at them and shoot. Saab screamed, her voice reverberating through the open window. The militants threw a grenade in her direction.

Her husband climbed onto the roof of their home and aimed a hunting rifle at the men, while she hunkered downstairs with the children. At least two of the men blew themselves up nearby. At the crack of dawn, Saab heard another neighbor screaming, “Abu Khaled has been shot!” — referring to Saab’s father. Ignoring her husband’s orders to stay indoors, Saab ran over the rocky path to her parent’s house, and spotted her father’s bloodied body on the ground near the front porch. She screamed for her mother and found her lying nearby, shot in her leg, blood everywhere.

“There is no greater tragedy than to see your parents like this, strewn on the ground before your eyes. We were together just the night before, staying up late together and talking. … They took them away from us,” she said, choking back tears.

Saab’s brother, Khaled, meanwhile, was trapped with his wife and daughter in their home, fearfully watching the IS fighters from their shuttered window. Another brother, who rushed to their aid, was killed outside Khaled’s home.

Less than an hour later, Saab called to tell Khaled that both their parents were dead. When he was able to leave his house, Khaled said he and other neighbors fought and killed as many IS militants as they could. He suffered two gunshot wounds in his thigh. But there was no time to grieve.

“We didn’t have the chance to cry or feel anything, even if our father, mother, neighbors, friends, all of these people had died. But at the time there wasn’t a moment to cry for anyone,” said the 42-year-old truck driver.

Residents said the village men fought with whatever weapons they could lay their hands on — hunting rifles, pistols, even sticks — against the far superior IS guns. The Islamic State group, which once held large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, has been mostly vanquished. Its de facto capital of Raqqa, in eastern Syria, fell a year ago this month. But the group fights on in eastern pockets like Deir el-Zour and Sweida province.

Some here fear that as the militants flee the advancing Syrian government forces, they will try to regroup in remote pockets of territory like this once quiet corner of Syria. They fear another raid or more trouble because of the brewing tensions over the hostages IS still holds.

On Tuesday, a video posted on the internet purported to show IS militants shoot Abu Ammar in the back of her head as they threatened to kill more hostages if the Syrian government and its Russian allies do not meet their demands, which include freeing IS fighters and their family members elsewhere in Syria.

In the village of Rami, where 20 civilians from the Maqlad family were killed in the July assault, Nathem Maqlad points to bullet holes and blood stains on the ground from the battle with IS. “I stand ready and alert to defend our land and dignity all over again if I have to,” he said, walking with a group of young men with rifles slung over their shoulders.

Turkey reinforcements enter Syria’s Idlib

Tuesday 25/09/2018

SARAQIB – Turkish troop reinforcements entered Syria’s rebel bastion of Idlib on Tuesday, an AFP correspondent reported, a week after a deal between Ankara and Moscow averted a government offensive.

Around 35 military vehicles traveled south down the main highway near the town of Saraqib after midnight.

The convoy was accompanied by pro-Ankara rebels of the National Liberation Front (NLF), who control part of the enclave on the Turkish border.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said the forces deployed to several Turkish positions around the northwestern province.

Since last year, Turkish troops have manned 12 monitoring positions in the rebel zone under a de-escalation agreement between Turkey, Russia and fellow regime ally Iran.

Last week, Ankara and Moscow announced a new agreement for a demilitarized zone along the horse-shoe shaped front line between the rebels and government troops.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist alliance led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate, controls more than half of the rebel zone, while NLF fighters hold sway over most of the rest.

The agreement gives Turkey the responsibility to ensure that all fighters in the planned demilitarized zone hand over their heavy weapons by October 10 and that the more radical among them withdraw by October 15.

The agreement also provides for Turkish and Russian troops patrol the buffer zone.

Last week, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey would have to send reinforcements to provide the numbers needed to conduct the patrols.

The Syrian civil war has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions since it erupted with the brutal repression of anti-government protests in 2011.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: https://middle-east-online.com/en/turkey-reinforcements-enter-syrias-idlib.

Russia puts deep roots in Syria, warns West against meddling

September 26, 2018

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The same day that Russian diplomats struck a deal with Turkey over a demilitarized zone in Syria’s last rebel-run region, dozens of Russian businessmen were flying home from Damascus, contracts in hand for trade with a postwar Syria.

Whatever happens to the rebels in Idlib province, Russia is determined to keep Syria solidly anchored in its sphere of influence over the long term — both as a foothold in the Middle East and as a warning to the U.S. and its allies against future interference.

“Russia wants … a new Mideast security order,” said Emile Hokayem, Middle East security expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. While Russia is blamed for widespread death and destruction as it supports Syrian President Bashar Assad, its forces have proven decisive in the international struggle against the Islamic State group, giving Moscow a credibility that Western powers lack. “Their intervention yielded much better returns than anyone expected,” Hokayem said.

Now the central challenge facing U.S. and other Western diplomats huddling about Syria this week at the United Nations is how to stay relevant. European Union diplomats are meeting the U.N. Syria envoy Wednesday, and France is hosting a meeting Thursday of the “Small Group” that’s trying to weigh in on Syria’s future, after years of failed efforts to back the Syrian opposition.

Russia isn’t invited to either meeting but still has the upper hand. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, meanwhile, is working to persuade other world powers to endorse a Russian-Turkish accord reached last week to create a buffer zone and avert an all-out battle for the last Syrian opposition stronghold in Idlib.

Even as Russia flaunts its diplomatic success, it’s also securing a military future with Syria. Russia announced Monday it’s selling S-200 missile systems to Syria. A longtime client of Russian weapons manufacturers since well before the war, Syria also was a reliable trading partner. And Moscow is furthering that relationship by rebuilding roads, pipes and skyscrapers wiped out by seven years of war — including destruction wrought by Russia’s own weapons.

A group of 38 Russian companies took part in the Damascus International Fair earlier this month. It was at least the fourth event in the past year aimed at reviving Russian trade with Syria — and Russian companies are heading back to Syria in early October for a conference on rebuilding the country.

Syria’s neighbors are similarly active, but in Russia’s case, analysts say, the economic activity is part of an influence strategy. Russia, for example, wants to rebuild Syria’s train network. “Russia built it in the first place, and wants to rebuild this and strategic economic ties,” said independent Russian analyst Vyacheslav Matuzov.

Russian companies are seeking a diverse trade base, with food, farming and energy deals, according to the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Chamber Vice President Vladimir Padalko described “the firm intention of Russian business not just to restore past trade cooperation between our countries, but also actively move forward.”

But Russia doesn’t want to foot the bill for the huge cost of reconstruction, so it is seeking Western help, notably in Lavrov’s meetings at the U.N. Hokayem said prospects of that are low, but Russia is still “in the driver’s seat” in Syria.

“Russia is always a step ahead, and has a higher tolerance level” for ups and downs in the Syria war because Putin doesn’t face serious domestic opposition. Russia’s Astana peace process with Iran and Turkey has been so successful, Hokayem said, that “the U.N. envoy has adopted (it) as his own.”

The next few weeks will be critical for Syria — and for Russia’s footprint. U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura told The Associated Press this week that October is going to be “a very important month” both for Idlib and for U.N.-led efforts to move toward peace.

Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed.

Turkey, Russia agree on demilitarized zone in Syria’s Idlib

September 17, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — The leaders of Russia and Turkey agreed Monday to establish a demilitarized zone in Syria’s Idlib region, the last major stronghold of anti-government rebels where fears had been running high of a devastating offensive by government forces.

The zone will be established by Oct. 15 and be 15-20 kilometers (9-12 miles) deep, with troops from Russia and NATO-member Turkey conducting coordinated patrols, President Vladimir Putin said at the end of a more than three-hour meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi.

The deal marked a significant agreement between the two leaders and effectively delays an offensive by Syria and its Russian and Iranian allies, one that Turkey fears would create a humanitarian crisis near its border.

Putin said “radical militants” would have to withdraw from the zone. Among them would be those from the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham — Arabic for Levant Liberation Committee. The group denies it is linked to al-Qaida.

It was not immediately clear exactly how the deal would be implemented in the province, which is home to more than 3 million Syrians and an estimated 60,000 rebel fighters from various groups. “I believe that with this agreement we prevented a great humanitarian crisis in Idlib,” Erdogan said at a joint briefing with Putin.

Turkey has been eager to prevent an assault by Syrian government troops in the province. Putin said he believed the agreement on Idlib could hasten final resolution of Syria’s long and devastating civil war.

“We agreed that practical implementation of the steps we plan will give a fresh impetus to the process of political settlement of the Syrian conflict and will make it possible to invigorate efforts in the Geneva format and will help restore peace in Syria,” he said.

Asked whether Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government agreed with the Putin-Erdogan plan, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told reporters in Sochi that “in the coming hours, we will agree with them on all the positions put forth in this document.”

Ahmed Ramadan, a spokesman for the Syrian political opposition in exile, said the agreement offered Russia a chance to walk back its threat against Idlib and represented a success for diplomatic pressure from Turkey and the United States, which was also against an offensive.

Ramadan also said the deal offers the Syrian government and Russia one of their main demands, which is securing the highway that passes through Idlib and links northern Syria with other cities. That was one of the government’s strategic aims in an offensive in Idlib.

“Turkey offered Putin a ladder with which to climb down from the tree, threatening a military offensive in Idlib that had little chance for success,” Ramadan said in a series of text messages with The Associated Press. “The Turkish and U.S. serious pressures were the reason behind Russia abstaining from the offensive and offering an air cover which means Iran alone won’t be able to carry out the offensive with the overstretched forces of the Assad regime.”

He said Russia has also refrained from its accusations that the rebels are all terrorists. “Russia swallowed all its accusations,” he said. “Turkey is in a strong position.” He said the zone would be enforced by Turkish patrols on the opposition side and Russian patrols on the government side.

Ramadan added that the opposition was now stronger than when it was after losses in Daraa and Ghouta. He said the Russians reached the agreement without negotiating it first with the Syrian government, pointing to Shoigu’s comments that Moscow will discuss the deal with the Syrian government later.

Abu Omar, a spokesman for the Turkey-backed rebel group Faylaq al-Sham, thanked Erdogan for preventing an offensive and giving the rebels time to defend their rebellion and people. Millions “of civilians in Idlib are in peace,” he tweeted.

He said he was confident that the deal “would not have been possible without the steadfastness of our people and fighters. Thank you, Erdogan.” Capt. Naji al-Mustafa, a spokesman for the Turkey-backed umbrella group of opposition fighters known as the National Front for Liberation, said diplomatic efforts have prevented a wide-offensive on Idlib but that his group still needs to learn the details of the deal.

He said the nature of the demilitarized zone and how it would be implemented are not yet clear. “We need details,” he said, adding that the Assad government has broken many agreements before, including the Russian-Turkey negotiated de-escalation zones.

“We will remain ready for fighting,” he said. Russia has called Idlib a hotbed of terrorism and had said the Syrian government has the right to retake control of it. In recent weeks, Russian officials repeatedly claimed rebels in Idlib were preparing a chemical weapons attack that could be blamed on the Syrian government and prompt a retaliatory strike by the West.

Turkey had appealed to Russia and Iran, its uneasy negotiating partners, for a diplomatic resolution. At the same time, it has sent reinforcements to its troops ringing Idlib, a move designed to ward off a ground assault, at least for now.

The International Rescue Committee, a New-York based humanitarian group, said the people of Idlib “will rest easier tonight knowing that they are less likely to face an impending assault.” However, Lorraine Bramwell, the group’s Syria country director, cautioned that previous de-escalation deals didn’t last long.

“In order to give people in Idlib peace of mind then, this agreement needs to be built upon by the global powers working together to find a lasting political solution that protects civilians,” Bramwell said. “It is also essential that humanitarian organizations are allowed to reach those who will remain in need throughout Idlib, including in any ‘demilitarized zone.'”

Idlib and surrounding areas were quiet Monday, a continuation of the calm that started less than a week ago amid Russia-Turkey talks.

Associated Press writer Jim Heintz reported this story in Moscow and AP writer Sarah El Deeb reported from Beirut. AP writer Neyran Elden in Istanbul, Turkey, contributed to this report.

Leaders of Russia, Turkey meet to discuss Syria’s Idlib

September 17, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — The presidents of Russia and Turkey were meeting in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi on Monday in a bid to find a diplomatic resolution to the crisis around a rebel-held region in Syria.

The province of Idlib in the country’s north-west is the last stronghold of Syrian rebels, and Turkey has been eager to prevent a potential government offensive there. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday was meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin for the second time in just 10 days after Russia and Iran expressed support for the idea of an offensive.

Russia calls Idlib a hotbed of terrorism and says the Syrian government has the right to retake control of it. Turkey has appealed to Russia and Iran, its uneasy negotiating partners, for a diplomatic resolution to the ticking bomb. At the same time, it has sent reinforcements to its troops ringing Idlib, a move designed to ward off a ground assault, at least for now.

Putin and Erdogan sat down for talks Monday afternoon. Putin told Erdogan in opening remarks carried by Russian news agencies that he and Erdogan will be “looking for solutions where there are none right now,” without mentioning Idlib by name.

Erdogan in his reply expressed hope that the joint statement that the two leaders are expected to make later on Monday will be “a different hope for the whole region.” It was quiet in Idlib and surrounding areas Monday, a continuation of the calm that started less than a week ago amid Russia-Turkey talks.

Idlib and surrounding areas is home to over 3 million Syrians, and an estimated 60,000 rebel fighters.

Putin seeks to defuse downing of Russian plane off Syria

September 19, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — A Russian reconnaissance aircraft was shot down by Syrian forces responding to an Israeli airstrike, killing all 15 people aboard, in what President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday was “a chain of tragic accidental circumstances.”

The downing of the Il-20 highlighted the dangers posed by the conflicting interests of various powers in the crowded skies over Syria and threatened the close security ties between Russia and Israel. In an effort to maintain that relationship, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly called Putin to express sorrow over the death of the plane’s crew, blamed the plane’s loss squarely on Syria and offered to send Israel’s air force chief to Moscow to share information about the incident.

The Russian military said the plane was hit 35 kilometers (22 miles) offshore late Monday night as it was returning to the Russian air base in Syria. The incident triggered testy exchanges of blame between Israel and Russia.

The Israeli military said its fighter jets were targeting a Syrian military facility involved in providing weapons for Iran’s proxy Hezbollah militia, noting that it warned Russia of the coming raid in line with de-confliction agreements. It said the Syrian army launched the missiles that hit the plane when the Israeli jets were already inside Israeli airspace.

But the Russian Defense Ministry said the Israeli warning came less than a minute before the strike, leaving the Russian aircraft in the line of fire. It pointedly accused the Israeli military of deliberately using the Russian plane as a cover to dodge the Syrian defenses and threatened to retaliate.

“The Israeli pilots were using the Russian aircraft as a shield and pushed it into the line of fire of the Syrian air defense,” said Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu called his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman, to declare that “the Israeli side bears full responsibility” for the plane’s downing and to warn that Russia “reserves the right to retaliate.”

But Putin took a more cautious tone, describing the incident as “a chain of tragic accidental circumstances.” At the same time, he said Russia will respond by “taking additional steps to protect our servicemen and assets in Syria.”

“It will be the steps that everyone will notice,” he said without elaboration. Netanyahu, who has maintained warm personal ties with Putin and frequently traveled to Russia for Syria-focused talks, noted the need for Russia and Israel to continue coordinating their action in Syria. At the same time, he emphasized Israel would not tolerate the Iranian military presence in Syria.

Putin told Netanyahu that the Israeli raid violated Syria’s sovereignty and breached the Russian-Israeli de-confliction agreement. He urged the Israeli side “not to allow such situations to happen again,” according to the Kremlin.

Israel has refrained from taking sides in the Syrian civil war, but it has carried out scores of airstrikes against archenemy Iran and its Shiite proxy Hezbollah. Israel has acknowledged attacking Iranian targets some 200 times, and Israel and Russia have maintained a hotline to prevent clashes between their forces in Syria. Israeli military officials have previously praised its effectiveness.

“Until now, Russia’s armed forces have granted Israeli jets the freedom to strike targets in Syria at will, on the condition that a sufficiently early warning is provided to Russia,” said Charles Lister, a Syria expert with the Washington-based Middle East Institute. “The glue binding this gentleman’s agreement — the Putin-Netanyahu personal relationship — will likely tide this issue over for the time being.”

Moscow has played a delicate diplomatic game of maintaining friendly relations with both Israel and Iran. In July, Moscow said that it struck a deal with Tehran to keep its fighters 85 kilometers (53 miles) from the Golan Heights to accommodate Israeli security concerns.

In response to Israeli worries, Russia also has shelved plans to arm Syria with sophisticated air defense assets, such as the long-range S-300 systems that could pose a significant threat to Israeli aircraft.

The downing of the plane could change that. Sima Shine, a former senior Mossad official and ex-deputy director-general at Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry, told Israel Army Radio that the incident could have “strategic implications” for Israel’s freedom of action in Syria.

“I think it will impose very serious restriction on Israel’s freedom of activity,” she said. Some Russian lawmakers and retired military officers called for a forceful response, saying Russia should provide Syria with the S-300 air defense systems and other sophisticated weapons to prevent any further strikes.

Shoigu, the defense minister, warned his Israeli counterpart that “we won’t leave such action without response.” Russia’s dramatic entry into the Syrian civil war in September 2015 to support Syrian President Bashar Assad after a year of airstrikes by the U.S. and its allies against the Islamic State group increased the possibility of dangerous confrontations over Syria.

The downing of a Russian warplane by a Turkish jet in November 2015 put Moscow and Ankara on the verge of military confrontation, but they later negotiated a series of de-escalation agreements for Syria together with Iran.

“The implementation of de-escalation across Syria a year ago introduced a new reality to Syria, in which foreign states are now actively competing to assert their own influence over overlapping territorial space,” Lister said. “Though appropriate measures have been put in place to manage this, the risk of state-on-state conflagrations like we saw overnight has never been higher. With a meaningful political settlement in Syria an increasingly far-fetched objective, this could well be the new reality we live with for years to come.”

The U.S. also expressed sorrow over the Russian deaths, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying it was a reminder of the need to find “permanent, peaceful, and political resolutions to the many overlapping conflicts in the region and the danger of tragic miscalculation in Syria’s crowded theater of operations.”

President Donald Trump, appearing at a White House news conference with Poland’s president, called it a “very sad thing” and said it was “not a good situation.” But Trump also said that the United States has done a “tremendous job” battling the Islamic State group in Syria. He went on to suggest that the nation’s mission there was “very close to being finished.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the shootdown complicates relations between Assad and the Russian government but has “no effect whatever” on the U.S. campaign to defeat Islamic State fighters in Syria.

Before the latest incident, Russia had lost at least seven warplanes and seven combat helicopters in Syria and also had seen dozens of troops killed in ground combat. And there have been other Syria-related deaths of Russians.

A Russian passenger plane carrying tourists from Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh resort crashed over the Sinai in October 2015, killing all 224 people aboard. The Sinai affiliate of the Islamic State group said it blew up the plane with a bomb smuggled on board.

And in December 2016, a passenger jet carrying members of the Red Army Choir to a New Year’s concert at a Russian military base in Syria crashed in the Black Sea minutes after takeoff from Sochi in southern Russia, killing all 92 people aboard. The investigation of that crash is continuing, but officials have indicated that pilot error was the likely cause.

Associated Press writers Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow, Josef Federman and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem, Sarah El Deeb and Bassem Mroue in Beirut, and Jonathan Lemire in Washington, contributed to this report.

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