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Russia has gained upper hand in Syria, Merkel ally says

Aerial footage released by Russia's Defence Ministry shows airstrikes hitting what the Defence Ministry says were Islamic State oil storage facilities, at an unknown location in Syria. REUTERS/Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation

MUNICH (Reuters) - Russia had gained the upper hand in Syria and the surrounding region through armed force, a senior conservative ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Sunday, and he voiced doubts that Moscow would respect a truce plan for the war-torn country.

“I think Russia has gained the upper hand in the region and this is by historical measures a novelty. And they have done so by the use of armed force,” said Norbert Roettgen, head of the foreign affairs committee in the German parliament and a member of Merkel’s conservative party.

Speaking at a security conference in Munich, he said he was skeptical about how Russia would behave in the days and weeks ahead, despite agreeing to a “cessation of hostilities” which is due to begin in a week’s time.

The deal agreed by major powers falls short of a formal ceasefire because it was not signed by the warring parties, the Syrian government and the rebels seeking to topple President Bashar al-Assad.

A day after the agreement was clinched, Syrian troops, backed by Russian air strikes, made gains against rebels near the northern Syrian city of Aleppo.

“Russia is determined to create the facts on the ground, and when they have accomplished this, then they will invite the West to fight a common enemy, this is ISIS,” Roettgen said. In his view, he said, the approach had disqualified Moscow as a credible partner in fighting Islamic State militants.

Participating in the same panel, U.S. Senator John McCain said he did not view the deal, sealed in Munich early Friday morning after nine hours of talks, as a breakthrough.

“Let’s be clear about what this agreement does. It allows Russia’s assault on Aleppo to continue for another week,” he said.

“It is no accident that Mr. Putin has agreed on a cessation of hostilities. We have seen this movie before in Ukraine: Russia presses its advantage militarily, it creates new facts on the ground, it uses the denial and delivery of humanitarian aid as a bargaining chip, it negotiates an agreement to lock in the spoils of war,” McCain said.

Reporting by Noah Barkin and Shadia Nasralla, editing by Larry King