Russian Parliament ratifies naval base agreement with Syria

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MOSCOW: The Russian Parliament voted on Thursday to extend Russia’s lease of a naval base in Syria for 49 years, following Vladimir Putin’s announcement of a partial pullout of Russian troops from the war-torn country.
Russia’s air campaign in Syria, which began in September 2015, helped turn the tide of the civil war in favor of Moscow’s long-time ally Bashar Assad. Putin earlier this month ordered a partial withdrawal from Syria but said Russia would keep its military presence there.
The State Duma voted to ratify an agreement with Syria, submitted by Putin, for Russia to keep its warships at the Mediterranean base in Tartus for 49 years.
The agreement allows Russia to keep 11 vessels there at a time, including nuclear-powered ships.
Russia also operates an air base in Syria’s coastal region that has been an Assad stronghold since the start of the conflict in March 2011.
The Parliament vote came as the eight round of “technical” talks over Syria that are brokered by Russia, Iran and Turkey resumed in Kazakhstan’s capital of Astana.
The latest round of talks is expected to discuss the humanitarian crisis in rebel-held parts of the suburb of the Syrian capital known as Eastern Ghouta.
Eastern Ghouta has been witnessing an increase of violence in recent weeks as humanitarian access dropped for the estimated 393,000 people trapped inside the enclave.
The UN and its humanitarian partners have only been allowed to reach 7 percent of those besieged, and food shortages have led to many cases of “severe acute malnutrition,” UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said this week.
In addition, more than 500 people are waiting for medical evacuation and 16 have already died, including three in the last few days — an infant, a nine-year-old girl, and a quadriplegic.
The opposition’s Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Syrian Civil Defense, volunteer first-responders known as White Helmets, said Thursday’s shelling of Eastern Ghouta wounded several people.
The Observatory said that since the attacks on the suburb resumed on Nov. 14, 213 civilians — including 50 children — have been killed in the region.
Jan Egeland, head of the UN’s humanitarian task force for Syria, said a list put together several months ago of nearly 500 civilians in desperate need of evacuation was rapidly shrinking.
“That number is going down, not because we are evacuating people, but because they are dying,” he told reporters in Geneva.
“I fear there will be many more. During this Christmas and holiday season, there will be more deaths unless we get evacuation going,” he said.
The Eastern Ghouta region, near Damascus, is one of the last strongholds of rebels fighting the forces of Assad.
Egeland said evacuations and efforts to bring aid into the region had been blocked by a lack of authorizations from the Syrian authorities.
“This has to end,” he said.
“How can we take Christmas and holidays in safety and in peace… while the most innocent in this conflict… are dying?”
They are dying, he said, “not because there was not relief, not because there were not people willing to go there… but because they were part of a power play between mostly well-fed men with power and with guns.”

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