Alexey Kudenko / Host Photo Agency / Getty Images

Putin defends Russian military equipment in Syria as necessary

Without Russia's support for Syrian regime, refugee crisis would be even greater, says Russian president

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday said it was impossible to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) without cooperating with the Syrian government. The comments came one day after U.S. officials said Russia was positioning tanks and other heavy artillery at a Syrian airfield.

Speaking at a meeting of a Moscow-dominated security alliance of ex-Soviet nations in Tajikistan, Putin said that Russia had provided military assistance to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government and will continue to do so.

He shrugged off allegations that Moscow's support for Assad has sparked a flow of refugees, saying in a televised statement that without Russia's support for Assad's regime the number of Syrian refugees heading to Europe would be even bigger.

Putin’s comments came as Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called on Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama to begin talks on ending the Syrian conflict.

The Pentagon on Monday said Russia had positioned about half-a-dozen tanks at an airfield in Latakia, a city at the center of Russia’s increasing military build-up in Syria.

American officials say they are uncertain of Russia’s intentions with the latest deployment of heavy military equipment, but believe that propping up Assad militarily could exacerbate violence in Syria.

Russia has backed Assad since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, not only through military support but also through diplomatic cover at the United Nations Security Council, where Moscow wields a veto as a permanent member.

But Moscow’s on-the-ground role in Syria has increased significantly in the past weeks, with reports last Wednesday suggesting that, for the first time, Russian combat forces had joined the fight alongside Assad’s forces.

The rise of ISIL over the last year has worried both Russia and the United States, but Washington’s international coalition to strike ISIL has come in spite of Assad, whose removal remains a U.S. foreign policy objective and a point of contention with Moscow.

Al Jazeera and Reuters

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