Putin says Syrian people “divided” and discusses safe zones with Trump


In a day of Russian diplomatic initiatives, President Vladimir Putin has given the first public hint that he may not be committed to the long-term stay of Bashar al-Assad in office in Syria.

Speaking at a joint news conference after a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin restated the standard Russian line that the “Syrian people” should determine the future, but he then introduced a new clause, “Obviously this people is split.”

The President continued, “We see big problems in Syrian society and our task is to create conditions for consolidation, for cessation of hostilities, for cessation of mutual destruction, for political dialogue of all conflicting forces.”

Russian officials have privately said that they are not wedded to Assad in power, as long as the Syrian state is favorable to Moscow’s interests, but the Kremlin has always avoided this explanation in public.

Putin restated Russia’s supposed commmitment to a ceasefire — in the face of its escalation in bombing of opposition areas — and said, “We are confident that a solution to the Syrian problem can be found only through United Nations brokered peace talks.”

He also maintained Moscow’s double line on the April 4 chemical attack by the Assad regime on Khan Sheikhoun in northern Syria. Although Russia vetoed a Security Council mandate for the Assad regime to cooperate with an international investigation, he declared:

We resolutely condemn any use of chemical weapons.

Naturally, those responsible for the death of Syrians must be found and punished. But it should be done only after a thorough and unbiased investigation.

Putin later spoke to Donald Trump, in what both the Kremlin and White House said was a productive discussions. A “senior Trump administration official” said Putin had requested the call to present his ideas for Syria. It was the first contact between the two men since an April 7 US missile on an Assad regime airbase, responding to the regime’s deadly chemical attack on a town in northwest Syria three days earlier.

The White House said that the two leaders agreed that “all parties must do all they can to end the violence”: “The conversation was a very good one, and included the discussion of safe, or de-escalation, zones to achieve lasting peace for humanitarian and many other reasons.”

The reference to the safe zones paralleled reports in Russian media that Moscow is proposing the safe zones — previously resisted by the Assad regime — with Russian, Iranian, and Turkish troops providing security on the ground.

Yahya al-Aridi, a senior opposition representative, said Putin’s Syria envoy, Alexander Lavrentiev, presented the plan for four buffer zones at a meeting with anti-Assad groups last week in Ankara.

The White House said Washington will send a representative to political talks in the Kazakhstan capital on Wednesday and Thursday, the first American involvement since the US was sidelined by Russia and Turkey last autumn and the talks were launched in January.

The State Department said acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Stuart Jones will attend as an observer.

At the conference with Merkel, Putin said:

Without the participation of a country such as the US, it’s impossible to resolve this problem effectively.

We will continue to be in contact with our American partners and we hope to reach an understanding on joint steps in this important and sensitive field.

The Russian President’s initiative continues today as he hosts Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Sochi.

Syria’s Women Activists: “We Are on the Frontlines of Fighting Terrorism”

A clip from the interview of three Syrian women activists — Noha Alkamcha, Yasmin Kayali Sabra, and Zaina Erhaim — on the US Public Broadcasting Service’s Charlie Rose Show:

Russian Lieutenant Colonel Killed by Sniper

A Russian Lieutenant Colonel has been killed by a sniper.

“Militants’ gunfire at a unit of Syrian troops has claimed the life of Lieutenant Colonel Alexei Buchelnikov,” the Defense Ministry said on Tuesday. “Alexei Buchelnikov was delegated to Syria as a member of the group of Russian military advisors. He had a duty of training the personnel of a Syrian armed unit.”

Russian losses have risen sharply since the start of the year, particularly in central Syria near the city of Palmyra, recaptured by pro-Assad forces from ISIS in March.

The Defense Ministry has minimized the losses, ignoring the death of troops working for private military contractors. While Reuters documented the loss of at least 21 personnel from late January to late March, the Ministry admitted to only 5.

Aid Into Besieged, Bombarded Douma for 1st Time Since October

An aid convoy of food and medical supplies has reached the besieged opposition town of Douma, northeast of Damascus, for the first time since October.

The Red Cross said on Tuesday that it delivered the assistance with the UN and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

Douma, the center of the leading rebel faction Jaish al-Islam, has been cut off since 2013 and bombarded for months as the Assad regime tries to break resistance and overrun the town.

Since spring 2016, pro-Assad forces have taken most of the East Ghouta area. They are currently trying to capture Damascus suburbs such as Qaboun, Barzeh, and Tishreen and bombing throughout opposition territory.