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U.S. air drops ammunition to Syria rebels

BEIRUT/WASHINGTON: U.S. forces have carried out an air drop of small arms ammunition to Syrian Arab rebels in northern Syria, barely two weeks after Russia raised the stakes by intervening in the war on the side of President Bashar al-Assad.

A U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said on Monday the air drop of supplies to the opposition fighters on Sunday was part of a revamped U.S. strategy announced last week to help rebels in Syria battling Islamic State militants.

Last week, Washington shelved a program to train and equip “moderate” rebels opposed to Assad who would join the fight against Islamic State.

The only group on the ground to have success against Islamic State while cooperating with the U.S.-led coalition is a Kurdish militia, the YPG, which has carved out an autonomous zone in northern Syria and advanced deep into Islamic State’s stronghold Raqqa province.

On Monday, the YPG announced a new alliance with small groups of Arab fighters, which could help deflect criticism that it fights only on behalf of Kurds. Washington has indicated that it could direct funding and weapons to Arab commanders on the ground who cooperate with the YPG.

Syrian Arab rebels said they had been told by Washington that new weapons were on their way to help them launch a joint offensive with their Kurdish allies on the city of Raqqa, the de facto Islamic State capital.

The Russian intervention in Syria has wrongfooted the U.S. administration of President Barack Obama, which has been trying to defeat Islamic State while still calling for Assad’s downfall.

DANGEROUS CONSEQUENCES

After joining the 4-year-old war in Syria, an attempt by President Vladimir Putin to win over opponents of Russia’s bombing campaign was snubbed on Monday, with Saudi sources saying they had warned the Kremlin leader of dangerous consequences and Europe issuing its strongest criticism yet.

Putin met Saudi Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman on the sidelines of a Formula One race in a Russian resort on Sunday.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday that those talks, along with discussions with the United States, had yielded progress on the conflict, although Moscow, Washington and Riyadh did not agree in full “as yet”.

But a Saudi source said the defense minister, a son of the Saudi king and one of the chief architects of its regional policy, had told Putin that Russia’s intervention would escalate the war and inspire militants from around the world to go there to fight.

Riyadh would continue to support Assad’s opponents and demand that he leave power, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

European foreign ministers, meeting in Luxembourg, issued a statement calling on Moscow to halt its bombing of Assad’s moderate enemies immediately.

They were unable to agree on whether Assad should have any role in ending the crisis but they did decide to extend sanctions by essentially freezing the assets of the spouses of senior Syrian figures.

“The recent Russian military attacks … are of deep concern and must cease immediately,” ministers said in their most strongly-worded statement on Russia’s intervention in a war which has claimed the lives of 250,000 people and caused a refugee crisis in neighboring countries and Europe.

“The military escalation risks prolonging the conflict, undermining a political process, aggravating the humanitarian situation and increasing radicalization,” said the ministers.

ISLAMIC STATE

Moscow says it targets only banned terrorist groups in Syria, primarily Islamic State. In its briefings, it describes all of the targets it strikes as belonging to Islamic State.

However, most strikes have taken place in areas held by other opposition groups, including many that are supported by Arab states, Turkey and the West in a war which has also assumed a sectarian dimension with Shi’ite Iran at odds with Saudi Arabia’s Sunni rulers.

For the first time since World War Two, Russian warplanes are flying combat missions in the same air space as Americans, who are leading a military coalition of Western and regional countries that is also bombing Islamic State, with all the accompanying risks.

Those countries say Assad’s presence makes the situation worse and he must leave power in any peace settlement. They accuse Moscow of using Islamic State as a pretext to bomb other enemies of Assad, a charge denied by Russia.

Syrian forces and their allies from the Lebanese Shi’ite militia Hezbollah, backed by Iranian military officers, have launched a massive ground offensive in coordination with the Russian air support.

They fought their fiercest clashes on Monday since the assault began, advancing in strategically important territory near the north-south highway linking Syria’s main cities.

Russian warplanes carried out at least 30 air strikes on the town of Kafr Nabuda in Hama province in western Syria, and hundreds of shells hit the area.

The Syrian army announced the capture of Kafr Nabuda and four other villages in Hama province. It also said the army had seized Jub al-Ahmar, a highland area in Latakia province which will put more rebel positions in the nearby Ghab Plain within range of the army’s artillery.

But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based group which monitors the war in Syria, said fierce clashes raged in both Kafr Nabuda and Jub al-Ahmar.

The Observatory’s director, Rami Abdulrahmman, said the army and allied forces had taken part of Kafr Nabuda, and were fighting insurgents for full control of the town.

The U.N. diplomat trying to convene talks to end the war said he would hold talks in Russia on Tuesday and then in Washington.

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