Russian President Vladimir Putin defended his country’s military support for Syria, saying Tuesday that Russia will continue to aid President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in their «fight against terrorist aggression.»
Speaking at a regional security conference in Tajikistan, Putin said Assad is open to working with the «healthy» opposition in Syria on a political solution to the conflict that has stretched on for four and a half years, but that the focus must first be on terrorism.
Assad has routinely used the word «terrorist» to describe rebels who have opposed his forces in the fight that has grown in complexity with the addition of Islamic State militants in large areas of the country.
Putin also pushed back against critics who say Russia’s involvement in Syria is increasing the flow of people fleeing the region. He said without Russia’s support in Syria, the situation would be worse and the flow of refugees greater.
His comments come a day after the U.S. Defense Department confirmed reports that Russia appears to be setting up an air base in Syria.
Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis told reporters Monday that the movement of Russian personnel and equipment into an area near the coastal city of Latakia «suggests the establishment of a forward operating base.»
Western news agencies earlier Monday quoted unidentified U.S. officials as saying Russia has sent artillery and seven T-90 tanks to a Syrian air field near Latakia.
Late last week, the Pentagon said Russia recently sent 200 naval personnel and modular housing for up to 1,500 troops to Syria, along with artillery, a short-range guided missile controller and about a dozen armored vehicles.
Syria’s ambassador to Russia, Riad Haddad, on Monday called talk of a Russian troop presence in Syria «a lie.»
«We have been cooperating with Russia for 30-40 years in various areas, including the military sphere,» Russia’s RIA Novosti quoted Haddad as saying. «Yes, we receive arms, military equipment – all this is done in line with agreements sealed between our countries. But the talk of your (Russian) troop presence on Syrian territory is a lie spread by Western countries, the United States.»
In a Russian television interview aired on Sunday, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated that Moscow has supplied arms to Damascus and will continue to do so. He added that such supplies are «inevitably accompanied by Russian specialists, who help to get the appropriate equipment up and running [and] to train Syrian personnel in the handling of these weapons.»
President Barack Obama has voiced concern about Russia’s military activity in Syria, warning that it could prevent the United States and its allies from finding a political solution to the Syrian civil war. The president said Friday that Washington would confront Moscow about its Syrian military activities.
Russia, a traditional Syrian ally, has supported the Assad government throughout the civil war with aid. It also has used its U.N. Security Council position to shield the Syrian government from U.N. sanctions.