Russian President Vladimir Putin said the fight against Islamic State should be the global community’s top priority in Syria, rather than changing the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
A broad coalition is needed to combat the threat posed by the terrorist group, which wants to spread its activities across Europe and Russia, Putin said on Tuesday at a security summit of ex-Soviet countries in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. It’s impossible to curb Islamic State without the Syrian army and Russia is backing President Assad’s government in fighting terrorism, including by providing military aid, he said.
“It’s necessary to think about the political transition in that country” and Assad is willing to “involve healthy opposition forces in the administration of the state,” Putin said. “But the focus today is definitely on the need to combine forces in the fight against terrorism.”
Syria’s civil war has killed more than 250,000 people since 2011 and prompted a refugee crisis that has spilled into neighboring countries and caused hundreds of thousands to seek shelter in the European Union. The turmoil has enabled the rise of Islamic State, which controls as much as half of Syria, while rebel militias backed by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar are also gaining ground. Russia is escalating military aid to Syria, which hosts the only Russian naval base outside the former Soviet Union, and is building a new air hub in the Middle East nation, according to the U.S.
Countries need to “put aside geopolitical ambitions” as well as “direct or indirect use of terrorist groups to achieve” goals that include regime change, in order to counter the threat of Islamic State, Putin said. “Elementary common sense responsibility for global and regional security demands the collective effort of the international community.”
Russia’s intentions in Syria are unclear and it’s important for U.S. diplomats to understand them, Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in Tallinn, Estonia, on Tuesday. While Putin’s said it wants to prevent Islamic State’s expansion, “explaining the purpose and seeing how it actually evolves on the ground are two very different things and we will be working on that,” Dempsey said.
The Pentagon said on Monday that Russia may be setting up an air operations base in Syria near Latakia, where the Assad family has its ancestral home, amid a “continual, steady” flow of people and things. Russia hasn’t moved fighter jets or attack helicopters to the base, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters.
Russia has stationed about half a dozen T-90 tanks, 15 howitzers, 35 armored personnel carriers and 200 marines at the base, and has built temporary housing for as many as 1,500 servicemen, according to satellite images and other information cited by unidentified U.S. officials, the New York Times reported on Monday.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Tuesday that Russia remains ready for continued dialogue on Syria with the U.S.
Putin may be using the military presence to increase his leverage in deciding the future transition in Syria if Assad is sidelined, or simply be seeking to keep the Syrian leader in power, according to a U.S. official.
If Russia gets directly involved in the conflict, it could target less extremist Islamic groups that haven’t been attacked by the U.S.-led coalition conducting air strikes in the country, as well as Islamic State, according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.