MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin said his government would continue to deliver military assistance to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, amid concerns over Moscow’s military buildup in the Middle Eastern country.
“We support the government of Syria in its effort to counter terrorist aggression,” Mr. Putin said at a security summit in Dushanbe, the capital of the Central Asia republic of Tajikistan. “We provide and will continue to provide military assistance.
“We call on other countries to join with us,” the Russian leader added.
Mr. Putin’s remarks come as U.S. officials sound the alarm over a more robust Russian military presence in Syria.
Over the weekend, U.S. officials said the Russian military had deployed half a dozen tanks at an airfield outside the Syrian port city of Latakia, a move Washington believes may be a prelude to Moscow taking a direct combat role in propping up the embattled Assad regime.
Alluding to the refugee crisis in Europe, Mr. Putin said: “If Russia didn’t support Syria, the situation in that country would be much worse than in Libya, and the flow of refugees would be greater.”
Mr. Assad’s army has suffered major battlefield setbacks in recent months. U.S. officials believe the new Russian buildup may pave the way for possible airstrikes against the militant group Islamic State and other forces arrayed against Mr. Assad.
Russian officials have thus far played down the deliveries of military hardware to Syria, saying that Russia is continuing a long-standing policy of supporting Mr. Assad. That support puts the U.S. at odds with the Kremlin: The administration of President Barack Obama backs a political transition that would exclude the Syrian president.
The Russian president, however, hinted at common ground with the U.S. The campaign against Islamic State extremists, he said, was a concern for Russia and other countries.
“Fighters from around the world receive ideological and military training in the ranks of ISIL, unfortunately including those from European countries, the Russian Federation and many countries of the former Soviet Union,” Mr. Putin said. “And of course we’re worried about their possible return to our territories.”
The Russian president is scheduled to appear at the United Nations General Assembly later this month. Dmitry Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, said Russia remained ready to continue dialogue on the Syria crisis, but added that the Kremlin hadn’t received a signal from Washington about Mr. Obama’s readiness to engage directly with Mr. Putin on the issue.
“It’s not possible to discuss the format without any sort of agreement or signals” from Washington, Mr. Peskov said, according to the Russian state news agency Interfax.
By Nathan Hodge