In Brief

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Syria: Spain under fire for allowing Russia warships to refuel

26 October

Spain is facing international condemnation after it emerged that Russian warships have been given permission to refuel and resupply at one of its ports.

The battle group has been making its way to the Mediterranean for several days now, passing through the English Channel on the way, and is expected to reach the Spanish port of Ceuta in North Africa later today. 

Spain "regularly" services Russian ships at the site, which is not covered by Nato treaties, says the Daily Telegraph.

At least 60 Russian military craft have stopped at the Spanish enclave since April 2010, when Madrid opened its naval base there to serve other nations, adds the newspaper.

According to The Guardian, the Spanish foreign ministry is now "reviewing" the permit it has issued to the Russian fleet.

The country has also been accused of hypocrisy after its acting government signed statements last week accusing the Russians of carrying out war crimes in Syria in their support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe in the EU parliament, tweeted: "Spain signed the EU statement on war crimes Russia in Aleppo last week, today helps refuel the fleet en route to commit more. Really?"

Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg warned yesterday that the Russian carrier group might be used to bomb civilians in Aleppo. 

He said: "It's for each nation to decide whether these ships can get supplies and be fuelled in different harbours along the route towards the eastern Mediterranean. 

"But at the same time, we are concerned - and I have expressed that very clearly - about the potential use of this battle group to increase Russia's ability and to be a platform for air strikes against Syria.

"This is something I have conveyed very clearly before and I repeat those concerns today. I believe that all Nato allies are aware this battle group can be used to conduct air strikes against Aleppo and Syria."

Syria: UK government gives mixed signals over fresh military action 

14 October

The West should consider fresh military action to help protect civilians in Syria, Boris Johnson said yesterday - before being contradicted by No 10.

Appearing before the foreign sffairs select committee yesterday, the Foreign Secretary said he did not want to give "false hope" to the Syrian opposition but "more kinetic options, the military options" were being considered. It might be "a long day's march", he added.

However, a spokesman for the Prime Minister immediately downplayed the prospect of extending the UK's military involvement in Syria.

"There are no plans for military action," he said. "We are working with the international community to look at how to bring the conflict to an end."

Military options

The UK has been involved in bombing raids against Islamic State in Syria since MPs voted for air strikes in December 2015.

If the government wanted to step up its intervention, a "no-bomb zone" may be more palatable to ministers than a no-fly zone, says the Huffington Post's Paul Waugh. Policing it would involve destroying airfields and artillery batteries rather than military jets, and would therefore "avoid the risk of downing Russian planes". 

Syrian opposition and several Labour MPs have long been calling for such a measure, but the likelihood of a full-scale military intervention remains slim, says Sky News's Faisal Islam.

"Post-Iraq War, the political calculation is that the public is too wary of any regime change policy," he said.

"Russian interests in Syria are stronger," he addded, "and Vladimir Putin is more willing to defend them than the UK, the EU and the US are willing to prevent the humanitarian catastrophe."

On the ground

With conditions in the country worsening, the Syrian government yesterday approved a UN aid plan to allow convoys to deliver aid to 25 of 29 besieged and hard-to-reach areas across Syria.

But the rebel-controlled eastern districts of Aleppo, which have been subject to heavy Syrian and Russian bombing, will not be receiving aid.

The UN has warned that the city could be completely destroyed by Christmas if the onslaught continues. Aleppo's mayor, Brita Haj Hassan, spoke of a "holocaust" criticising the West's inaction.

"Aleppo is burning and the international community is just watching and doing nothing," he said.

Russia has not admitted causing any civilian deaths and says it targets only "terrorists". However, Airwars, the international monitoring group, told The Guardian: "Everything we understand about the way Russia is behaving shows they are deliberately targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure." 

Independent observers say Russian strikes have been confined to areas populated with Syrian opposition forces.

Russia hits back at Johnson's 'shameful' protest call

13 October

Boris Johnson's call for protests against Russian actions in Syria has led to an escalating row, following interventions from the Kremlin and France's foreign minister.

On Tuesday, the Foreign Secretary used his first front-bench speech to attack Moscow's bombing raids in Aleppo and said he "would certainly like to see" demonstrations outside the Russian embassy in London.

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told the Interfax news agency Johnson's call was "shameful", while defence spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov described it as "Russophobic hysteria."

"The frenzy that has gripped... Boris Johnson, who accuses Russia of committing every deadly sin, is a storm in a teacup full of muddy London water," he added. 

Johnson's strategy was also questioned by French foreign minister Jean-Marc Aryault, who has called for the International Criminal Court to investigate Russia's actions.

"Is the job of a foreign minister to organise demonstrations?" he asked.

In the UK, a spokesman for Jeremy Corbyn suggested people should feel free to protest outside the embassies of all foreign powers intervening in Syria, including the US. "The focus on Russian atrocities sometimes diverts attention away from other civilian casualties," he said.

The Stop the War Coalition, which is closely associated with the Labour leadership, said protesting against Russian actions would be counter-productive.

"A protest outside the Russian embassy would actually contribute to increasing the hysteria and the jingoism that is being whipped up at the moment against Russia," the group said.

The comments drew an angry reaction from the husband of murdered Labour MP Jo Cox, who campaigned for more aid for Syria. Corbyn's intervention was "disgraceful", Brendan Cox said.

Meanwhile, the former head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, told the BBC the world was entering an era "more dangerous" than the Cold War "because of an increase in Russian military power".

He urged politicians to be "careful and mindful" that calls for demonstrations in London may spark a retaliation in Moscow.

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