3/11/2016

Russia Attempts to Build Peace


Russia has faced heavy criticism in the West over its military operation in Syria. 

The Russian air force has been accused of indiscriminate bombing. 

The human rights group Amnesty International says it has "compelling evidence" that Russian and Syrian government forces had "deliberately and systematically targeted hospitals and other medical facilities" in Aleppo in the north.

But during our trip to Syria this week, the Russian military has tried to convince us that it is playing a constructive role: that of peacemaker.

We were taken to two villages to see the Russian army handing out plastic bags with humanitarian aid: tinned fish and meat, dried peas and biscuits.

Printed on the packages were the Russian and Syrian flags and the words 'Russia is with you!" (though written in Russian, not Arabic).

In Maarzaf, near Hama, we saw a village elder signing a declaration of peace with a Russian army officer. 

The village pledged to support the process of reconciliation in Syria and bow to Syrian government control in return for security guarantees. 

A large tent had been erected for the occasion and many of the villagers were there to witness the event. Afterwards, the Russian army handed out Russian sweets and biscuits to local children.

It was in Maarzaf that we met Ahmed Mubarak: a pro-Moscow local sheikh who is working with the Russians to persuade villages across Hama province to sign similar pledges. 

The sheikh has his own private army: many of his heavily armed "soldiers" were in the village for the ceremony; some had taken up positions on rooftops, others - with guns slung over their shoulders - wandered through the crowd.

The Russian army had brought us to the village in an armoured vehicle and we had been advised to wear body armor here. 

Despite the peace agreement in this village, it did not feel as if peace was breaking out in Syria.

The Russians admit that towns and villages are not rushing to sign peace deals.

"Negotiations with villages are difficult," Lt-Col German Rudenko told us. He heads the Russian army's Reconciliation Group for Hama province.

"People are worried that by agreeing to co-operate with us, they will face pressure from terrorist groups."

The Russians have signed a similar peace declaration with the district of al-Tall, north of Damascus. But that does not mean all armed opponents of President Bashar-al Assad have laid down their weapons.

One resident in the town told me there were still "rebels" there, though she would not specify from which militant groups. 

"They are now thinking, they are not going against our army," she said. "Some of them are trying to settle down, some of them waiting. It's not very clear, but things are going in the right direction."

The United Nations says that the cessation of hostilities in Syria, negotiated by Russia and the United States, is holding. But only just. The UN describes it as "fragile" and warns "success is not guaranteed".

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