Russian President Vladimir Putin has dismissed criticism over his country’s air campaign in Syria, accusing Western governments of a double standard in their support for the Syrian opposition.
Speaking on Thursday at a political conference in Sochi, Putin said the West is using some of the rebel groups as pawns to fit their wider agenda in the Middle East.
"Let's not play with words and divide the terrorists into moderate and not moderate," said Putin. “I would like to understand what is the difference. Perhaps, some experts believe that moderate bandits behead people in moderate numbers or in some tender way."
Putin’s comments came ahead of a Friday meeting in Vienna, the Austrian capital, between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his counterparts from the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Turkey — among the most vocal opponents of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad government — to discuss the crisis in Syria.
The talks, which follow a surprise visit by Assad to Moscow earlier this week, will provide a key opportunity for diplomats discuss Russia's increased military role in Syria and how that impacts efforts to end the conflict.
On Sept. 30, Putin launched a campaign of airstrikes in Syria in support of Assad, thrusting Russia into the heart of the conflict. Moscow says it has hit about 500 "terrorist" targets since launching its campaign.
Some observers has suggested Putin could use his enhanced influence over Damascus to pressure Assad into making concessions to the opposition, unblocking a peace process that has been at a virtual standstill for years.
But the airstrikes, which continue to target fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as well as other rebels groups opposed to Assad, show no signs of letting up. And a diplomatic solution seems for now a distant possibility.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based monitoring group, said earlier this week that Russian strikes had killed 370 people, including 127 civilians.
Al Jazeera and wire services