Russian president Vladimir Putin has strongly defended Moscow’s military aid to the Syrian government, saying it is impossible to defeat the Islamic State group without co-operating with Damascus.
Putin’s statement comes amid the signs of an ongoing Russian military buildup in Syria, which the US says signals Moscow’s intention to set up an air base there.
Speaking at a meeting of heads of states at a Moscow-dominated security alliance of former Soviet nations in Tajikistan, Putin urged others to follow Russia’s example and offer military support to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s government.
“We are supporting the government of Syria in the fight against a terrorist aggression, are offering and will continue to offer it necessary military-technical assistance,” Putin said in televised remarks.
“Without an active participation of the Syrian authorities and the military, it would be impossible to expel the terrorists from that country and the region as a whole, and to protect the multi-ethnic and multi-confessional Syrian people from destruction.”
He said that Assad was ready to conduct political transformations and engage a “‘healthy part of the opposition,” but added that “pooling forces in the fight against terror takes the priority now”.
Russia has staunchly backed up Assad throughout Syria’s devastating civil war that has killed about 250,000 people and turned millions into refugees, shielding him from UN sanctions and continuing to provide him with weapons despite Western criticism.
Putin shrugged off allegations that Moscow’s support for Assad has sparked a flow of refugees, saying that without Russia’s support for Assad’s regime the number of Syrian refugees heading to Europe would have been even bigger.
“People are fleeing Syria primarily to escape fighting that has been fuelled from the outside with supplies of weapons and hardware, they are fleeing to escape terrorist atrocities,” he said.
“Without Russia’s support for Syria, the situation in the country would have been worse than in Libya, and the flow of refugees would have been even bigger.”
The Pentagon says Russia is in the midst of a steady military buildup at an airport in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia, indicating Moscow intends to create a forward air operations base there, although no fighter jets or helicopters have arrived yet.
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