Kremlin: demands for Assad’s departure ‘thoughtless’
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MOSCOW — The entire territory of Syria must be ''liberated,'' Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman said in remarks televised Saturday, dismissing demands for Syrian President Bashar Assad's departure as thoughtless.
The Russian statement came as intense clashes were reported in northern Syria between Turkish troops and Turkey-backed opposition fighters with Kurdish-led forces. The Syrian army command condemned the fresh offensive by Turkish troops in Syria, describing it as ''an occupation that will be dealt with by all available means.''
The Turkish military intervened in the Syrian war in August this year under orders from Ankara to clear the border area of Islamic State fighters and US-backed Syrian Kurdish forces linked to Turkey's own outlawed Kurdish insurgency. The Turkish government considers both to be terrorist groups.
Russia's Dmitry Peskov said Assad needs to stay in power to prevent the country from falling into the hands of jihadis.
''There are just two options: Assad sitting in Damascus or the Nusra sitting in Damascus,'' Peskov said in a reference to the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda's branch in Syria that renamed itself Fatah al-Sham Front earlier this year. ''And Assad must sit in Damascus to ensure a political settlement.''
Peskov's statement comes as the break in the fighting Russia has declared in the besieged city of Aleppo entered its third day. He said Russia's decision to extend the break, which was initially declared for just one day Thursday, wasn't a concession to Western pressure.
The UN praised the lull intended to allow the evacuation of wounded civilians and fighters from the rebel-held eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo that had been devastated by airstrikes, but the rebels have rejected the offer to evacuate and no evacuations were seen along the corridors created by the Syrian government.
A UN official told The Associated Press that Syrian opposition fighters were blocking the evacuations because the Syrian government and Russia were not holding up their end of the deal and were impeding deliveries of medical and humanitarian supplies into Aleppo.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the West was turning a blind eye to the Al Qaeda militants blocking humanitarian aid deliveries to Aleppo and trying to shift the blame onto Moscow.
''It's mean and cynical to . . . watch the Nusra block the delivery of food and medicines to civilians while blaming Russia for the humanitarian catastrophe in Aleppo,'' she said.
Russia launched an air campaign in support of Assad a year ago, helping his forces win back some key ground. The relentless bombing of Aleppo, the country's largest city and its commercial hub before the war, has caused international outrage.
Peskov said the goal of the Russian campaign is to fight terrorists, saying that the fall of the Syrian government would cause new flows of refugees and more terror attacks in Europe.
''Some countries are trying to play with the devil and use terrorists to get rid of Assad, and some just say thoughtlessly that Assad must leave,'' Peskov said. ''If Damascus falls and terrorists take hold there, there will be no political settlement then.''
He said there is little hope that the Syrian conflict could end soon, adding that it will require a ''long and hard work by the international community.''
''The territory of Syria must be liberated,'' Peskov said. ''It must be liberated and everything must be done to prevent the country's breakup, which could have catastrophic consequences for the entire region.''
Asked if the deployment of a Russian aircraft carrier into the eastern Mediterranean was intended as a warning for the United States against striking Assad's forces, Peskov said Russia already has sufficient military assets in Syria.
The Admiral Kuznetsov carrier and escorting ships sailed through the English Channel Friday en route to Syria. Russia has a navy repair facility in the Syrian port of Tartus, its only such outpost outside the former Soviet Union.
''There are plenty of instruments already there to control the skies and the security of our infrastructure in Syria,'' Peskov said.
Earlier this month, the Russian military warned the US against striking the Syrian army, stressing that Russian air defense weapons in Syria stand ready to fend off any attack.