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Anger as Moscow blocks UN sanctions over regime's use of chemical weapons

Syria's President Assad makes surprise visit to Moscow

26 October

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has made an unannounced visit to Moscow to hold talks with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, who began air strikes in Syria last month.

Russia claims to be targeting Islamic State and other "terrorist" militants fighting Assad's government, but the US has accused the country of targeting moderate opposition groups instead.

Dmitry Peskov, the Russian presidential spokesman, said Assad "came on a working visit to Moscow" on Tuesday evening and that the two leaders had discussed the fight against "terrorist groups" and the continuation of Russian air strikes.

Syrian state TV said it was the first overseas visit made by Assad since the civil war broke out in Syria four years ago.

It comes after Russia signed a deal with the US in a bid to avoid clashes between their air forces in the skies above Syria. Aircraft from both countries "entered the same battle space" last week, coming within miles of each other, according to the US. Under the new agreement, the two countries will have to establish better communication, but will not share intelligence about their targets.

According to The Times, US-backed rebels had called on the West to send them shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles to counter the Russian air offensive.

One Free Syrian Army fighter told the newspaper: "We need anti-aircraft missiles just like the baby needs his mother's milk. This would give us a huge advantage and help us win the war."

The US has sent in fresh supplies of anti-tank missiles. However, the Times points out that supplying anti-aircraft weapons would require a "massive change of heart from the United States, which has repeatedly vetoed requests because of concerns that they could fall into extremist hands or be used against American aircraft flying over Syria".

US Defence Secretary Ash Carter is expected to outline a new American strategy for fighting IS in Syria in front of Congress next week.

Meanwhile, Canada's newly-elected Liberal prime minister Justin Trudeau has called US President Barack Obama to tell him that Canada will no longer carry out air strikes in Syria or Iraq.

Syria: doubt cast over Russia's 'extraordinary' IS claims

14 October

UK experts have cast doubt on "extraordinary" claims by the Russian military that it has destroyed "the majority" of Islamic State's ammunition, heavy vehicles and equipment.Russian President Vladimir Putin says his jet fighters are carrying out strikes against IS and other "terrorist groups", but the US has accused him of targeting moderate opposition groups fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The Russian defence ministry released a series of videos showing attacks on targets by its bombers and said at least 86 IS targets were hit over 24 hours on Monday and Tuesday this week.Dr Srdja Trifkovic, foreign affairs editor of Chronicles, a paleo-conservative journal, told Russia Today: "The Russians with Syrian boots on the ground have done more to degrade Isis in less than ten days than the US did in more than a year of its half-hearted campaign."But The Independent says UK-based experts remain sceptical about the "extraordinary" claims. Charlie Winter, a senior researcher for the anti-extremism think-tank Quilliam, told the newspaper: "I highly doubt that even the Russians, who will be party to much of Assad intelligence, know where the 'majority of Isis ammunition, heavy vehicles and equipment' is located."Dr Andreas Krieg, an expert on the Middle East from King's College's Department of Defence Studies, said the claims that IS has been significantly weakened "are either highly exaggerated or wrong".Russia is expected to hold new talks with the US over air safety in Syria following a "near miss" over the weekend. Combat aircraft from both nations reportedly came within just 10 to 20 miles of each other on Saturday. The two countries have already held two rounds of talks to find ways to avoid accidental conflict.

Meanwhile, two shells yesterday struck the Russian embassy compound in the Syrian capital Damascus. No deaths were reported but there were some injuries. It came as hundreds of Assad backers rallied in support of Russian air strikes.

Kurdish forces accused of war crimes

A report by Amnesty International has accused Kurdish forces of committing war crimes against Syrian civilians in their semi-autonomous enclave in the north of the country. The Kurds, who are among the most successful ground forces battling IS, were accused of forcing thousands of Syrians – mostly Arabs – out of their homes and of demolishing villages in retaliation for their perceived sympathies for IS and other militants. The Syrian Kurdish political party Popular Protection Units (YPG) has consistently denied accusations of forced displacements.

US ammunition airdrop

The US military has airdropped 50 tons of ammunition to a new band of fighters in Syria called the Syrian Arab Coalition. The US said it was dropped in an area where regime forces do not fight and Russian planes do not fly, but concerns have been raised about a lack of vetting. "While the US military previously vetted each Syrian militant receiving US sponsorship, now the programme vets only the leadership of rebel groups, raising the prospect that US weaponry could migrate to the broader Syrian civil war," says The Guardian.

Labour eases line on UK military action

Back in the UK, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has signalled that his party could support UK military action in Syria without UN backing. A spokesman for Corbyn said he had "not ruled anything out", even though he has previously made clear that he opposed air strikes in Syria. Writing in the Guardian yesterday, shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn said: "On the question of air strikes against Isis in Syria, it should now be possible to get agreement on a UN resolution given that four of the five permanent members – the US, France, Britain and Russia – are already taking military action against Isis in Iraq or Syria or in both countries." Should any resolution be vetoed by Russia "we would need to look at the position again", said Benn. The Financial Times describes it as a "potential boost to David Cameron's aim to win parliamentary approval for air strikes against Isis".

Iranian troops arrive in Aleppo

Thousands of Iranian troops have arrived in Syria's largest city Aleppo to join Assad's forces and Hezbollah fighters against insurgents. The battle for control of the city has been raging since 2012 between various rebel groups, the Assad regime and IS.

Russia defends strikes in Syria and summons British diplomat

12 October

Russia has defended its military operations in Syria and summoned a British diplomat in Moscow to explain reports that RAF pilots have been authorised to shoot down Russian warplanes.

The Sunday Times yesterday claimed that RAF Tornados in Iraq would be fitted with air-to-air missiles to protect them from attack by Russian aircraft.

Airspace in the region has become increasingly congested since Russia began launching air strikes in Syria, and concerns about an accident in the air have been raised.

One military source told the newspaper: "In war, we have to live by the maxim of 'what can go wrong will go wrong'."

Other unnamed senior figures suggested Russian warplanes could also be targeted by the RAF in a scenario where they refused to leave British airspace. "Russia is being highly provocative," said one minister. "It wouldn't surprise anyone if the Turks shot down a Russian jet. If the Russians keep violating their airspace they would be entitled to. We take the same view about Russian incursions into our airspace."

A Foreign Office spokesman, who described the weekend's reports as "inaccurate", said a British military attaché had been called in for a meeting with the Russian ministry of defence on Sunday for clarification.

The diplomat reportedly reiterated the British government's concerns about Russia's military operation in Syria, including reports that Moscow is targeting "legitimate" opposition groups rather than Islamic State militants. There are also concerns about Russia using unguided weaponry and the number of civilian deaths.

Russian president Vladimir Putin has denied that his air strikes are hitting moderate opposition groups rather than IS and said the aim was to "stabilise the legitimate authority" of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

Meanwhile, Iraq's air force claims to have struck a convoy that included IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the western Anbar province.

Eight senior militants were killed, but reports from local residents and hospitals suggest Baghdadi was not among them, reports Reuters.

One Islamic State Twitter account said the "rumours" that Baghdadi had been targeted were false.

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