Russia plays up role as peacemaker, donor in Syria

A Syrian woman is attended to by a Russian medical worker at a Russian medical unit in the town of Rastan, in a humanitarian corridor outside the Homs province de-escalation zone, on Sept 13, 2017.

DAR AL KABIRAH, SYRIA (AFP) - At a mobile medical clinic in central Syria's Homs province, a Russian doctor takes an elderly woman's blood pressure. Nearby, his colleague examines a dazed teenager on a gurney.

"Take half a pill in the morning and the second half at night," the Russian doctor tells the woman through a translator.

The pop-up facility outside of rebel-held Dar al-Kabira in central Syria is one of several medical units deployed by Moscow, which has remained a close ally of President Bashar al-Assad throughout the six-year conflict.

Russia began an air war in support of Assad in 2015, swinging the conflict in his favour, but it is now increasingly seeking to depict itself as a peacemaker and humanitarian donor in the war-devastated country.

The evidence is on clear display near Dar al-Kabira, where Russia is monitoring a "de-escalation zone" between regime and rebel forces agreed in August.

This week, civilians from both sides could be seen queueing in separate lines to get sacks of food bearing the slogan "Russia is with you!" Russian army Colonel Alexander Sazonov, head of the Al-Dar al-Kabira checkpoint, said the buffer zone had been set up two months ago and was already improving the situation for civilians.

"Before, there was no medical aid for five years, and people couldn't meet their loved ones," Sazonov said, during a tightly-controlled press tour organised by the Russian military.

'Help from Russia'

The zone in Homs province is part of a deal agreed in May by Russia, regime ally Iran, and rebel backer Turkey to create four "de-escalation" areas in Syria.

Syria's conflict has killed more than 330,000 people since it began in March 2011 with anti-government protests, and it has wrecked the country's economy.

Fighting, damage to infrastructure and the use of siege tactics have plunged parts of the population into poverty and created food and medical shortages.

Sazarov says about 10 tonnes of aid is distributed weekly at Dar al Kabirah, insisting that "we would like there to be more aid".

"But right now Russia is the only one doing any of this." Russian trucks marked "Help to Syria from Russia" shuttled in aid packages containing sugar, grain and canned meat.

"From here it's about 500 metres (yards) to the fighters," Sazarov said.

"If you're not a fighter with blood on your hands, you can go in and out." Residents crossing from the Syrian government side of the checkpoint - adorned with portraits of Assad - had their belongings and IDs checked before hurrying through.

Nawaf Ramadan, a local resident, had arrived from the government side to collect a sack of food.

"I always come here," he told AFP. "My house had some damage but I have repaired it. We don't have a lot of money to buy food."

'Only talk to the Russians'

On the rebel side, Russian officers look for influential locals who can spread the word about humanitarian aid shipments, Russian military spokesman Igor Konashenkov told AFP.

He touted a recent effort to target needs at the start of the school year, with Russia providing school supplies for residents living on both sides of the checkpoint, including desks, he said.

Aid convoys are protected by Russian military police.

"Our job is to guarantee security. There could be somebody armed, there could be instances of a crowd crush," said one officer, who gave his name only as Artyom.

"There is enough food but it's human nature (to push)." Sazonov said hostilities have ceased since the zone was established and there have been "no violations", though the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, has reported sporadic infractions.

Every day, about 10,000 people cross back and forth through the checkpoint, he said.

Three other de-escalation zones in Syria have been agreed as part of an accord reached earlier this year in the Kazakh capital Astana.

One lies near the capital Damascus, another is in the country's south, and the final one in the northwest Idlib province was just agreed on Friday in Astana.

Konashenkov said the real goal of the de-escalation zones was to get the sides to reconcile, a process in which he insisted Russian participation was key.

"It starts off with them saying, 'We won't talk to each other, we'll only talk to the Russians,'" he said.

"Russians are perceived normally everywhere."

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