Vladimir Putin says Russia has no plans “right now” to put combat troops on the ground in Syria, but would continue backing Bashar Assad’s government.
The Russian leader, speaking in an interview broadcast on the eve of his meeting with US president Barack Obama, also sharply criticised US military support for Syrian rebels, describing it as not only illegal but counter-productive.
His statements show how far apart Russia and the US remained on Syria going into the meeting between the two presidents. President Putin and Mr Obama will meet on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, after both address the annual gathering of world leaders.
A Russian military build-up in Syria, a long-time ally, has raised concerns in Washington. Mr Putin and other officials have said only that Russia was providing weapons and training to President Assad’s army to help it combat the Islamic State (IS) group. Asked if Russia could send troops to join the fight, Mr Putin previously said “we are looking at various options”.
He was somewhat more definitive in the latest interview.
“Russia will not participate in any troop operations in the territory of Syria or in any other states. Well, at least we don’t plan on it right now,” he said on CBS’ 60 Minutes show.
“But we are considering intensifying our work with both President Assad and with our partners in other countries.”
In a dig at the US Mr Putin noted the Pentagon’s recent admission that an effort to train more than 5,000 Syrian rebels had yielded only four or five fighters after about 50 others were captured, wounded or fled in their first encounter with extremist militants.
“It turns out that just 60 were properly trained, only four or five with weapons are fighting, while the rest of them simply took the American weapons and ran over to join ISIS,” Mr Putin, using an alternate acronym for IS, said in an excerpt released earlier in the day by the Kremlin and omitted from the US broadcast.
Defending Russia’s military build-up in Syria and support for President Assad, he described the Syrian government army as the only legitimate one in Syria and said the US military support for “illegal structures” ran counter to international law and the UN charter.
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and US secretary of state John Kerry met on Sunday to prepare the ground for the presidents’ meeting.
“We are just at the beginning of trying to understand what the Russians intentions are in Syria, in Iraq and try to see if there are mutually beneficial ways forward here,” a senior US official said.
“We have a long way to go in that conversation.”