MOSCOW: President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday staunchly defended Russian military assistance to Syria’s beleaguered government, saying Islamic State extremists won’t be defeated without help from Damascus, and more countries should follow Moscow’s example.
U.S. officials have expressed concern about a recent Russian military buildup in western Syria’s Latakia region, a stronghold of President Bashar Assad, and have warned the Kremlin against propping up his government.
Speaking at a security summit of former Soviet states in Tajikistan, Putin said Russia is supporting Syrian authorities against “terrorist aggression.”
“We provide and will continue to provide the necessary military technology assistance and urge other nations to join in,” he said, according to news reports from Russia.
“It’s obvious that without the Syrian authorities and the military playing an active role, without the Syrian army fighting Islamic State ‘on the ground,’ it’s impossible to drive terrorists from this country and from the region as a whole.”
Putin dismissed accusations that Russia is contributing to the massive influx of refugees to Europe by shoring up Assad’s government.
“If Russia had not supported Syria, the situation in the country would have been worse than in Libya, and the refugee flow would have been even greater,” he said.
Russia has provided weaponry and other military aid to Assad, one of the Kremlin’s few Middle East allies, since the start of the catastrophic civil war that has killed an estimated 250,000 people and displaced millions.
But some Western security analysts see the buildup near the port city of Latakia—where Russia is suspected of ferrying weapons, troops and temporary housing to establish an air base—as evidence that Putin is preparing to engage in direct action on behalf of Syria’s government, whose forces have suffered major setbacks in recent weeks.
Putin hinted last week that he was considering launching airstrikes against Islamic State, but said his government had yet to make a decision.
There has also been speculation that the military airlift is intended to protect Russia’s naval base at Tartus, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, or potentially to secure an escape route for Assad, should he be forced out of office.
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry sought to clarify Russia’s intentions in a call Tuesday with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, his third in the last 10 days, State Department officials said without elaborating.
U.S. officials believe any support for Assad’s government is “destabilizing and counter-productive, principally because Assad has lost the legitimacy to lead that country,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters in Washington.
He urged Russia to cooperate with the U.S.-led coalition conducting airstrikes against Islamic State militants who control large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq.
“The Russians indicate that they share that goal, and we’d like to see them work cooperatively with the rest of the international community to advance it,” he said.