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Putin Talks Up Anti-Extremist Coalition, But Says Russia Not Ready To Fight IS

  • RFE/RL

Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has reiterated his call for an international coalition to fight extremism and said he has discussed the idea with U.S. President Barack Obama.

But he said it was "premature" to talk about Russia's taking part in military operations against the Islamic State (IS) militant group -- an adversary of both the United States and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government, which has Russia's backing.

Putin made the remarks to journalists in the Russian city of Vladivostok on September 4. They came amid intricate diplomacy and public posturing over Syria, where Russia appears to hope concerns about IS will encourage Washington to stop insisting Assad must go in any political solution to the civil war.

Putin spoke hours after the Obama administration said it is closely monitoring reports that Russia is carrying out military operations in Syria and warned Moscow that such operations could be "destabilizing and counterproductive."

"We really want to create some kind of an international coalition to fight terrorism and extremism," Putin said. "To this end, we hold consultations with our American partners -- I have personally spoken on the issue with U.S. President Obama."

Putin -- whose ties with the United States are badly strained over Moscow's takeover of Crimea and its support for armed separatists in eastern Ukraine -- said he also discussed such a coalition with the leaders of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and others.

Asked whether Russia could take part in operations against the IS group, Putin said: "We are looking at various options but so far what you are talking about is not on the agenda. "To say we're ready to do this today -- so far it's premature to talk about this."

However, Putin said that Russia is "already giving Syria quite serious help with equipment and training soldiers, with our weapons," according to state-run news agency RIA.

Unconfirmed media reports and Internet postings, such as images purporting to show Russian aircraft and drones near Idlib Province, have prompted speculation that Russia is stepping up its military support for Assad's government.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on September 3 that Washington is monitoring such reports closely.

"Any military support to the Assad regime for any purpose, whether it's in the form of military personnel, aircraft supplies, weapons, or funding, is both destabilizing and counterproductive," Earnest said.

Other reports have suggested Russia has targeted IS militants.

U.S. officials have declined to say whether they had intelligence suggesting the reports were accurate.

We’ve seen various press reports that Russia may be deploying military personnel or aircraft to Syria. I can say we’re monitoring them very closely, we’re looking into it, we’re in touch with partners in the region to try to get more information,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on September 3.

“We’re unclear what these might be intended for or whether this is actually happening," Toner said. "But certainly we would be concerned by any attempt to support the Assad regime with military personnel, with aircrafts, with supplies of any kind or funding because we view it as destabilizing.”

The United States and its allies have repeatedly said Assad has no place in Syria's future and called for his exit from power, while Russia has backed him and said his departure must not be a precondition for a solution to the civil war.

Moscow has pointed to IS gains in Syria and Iraq to urge the United States, Saudi Arabia, and other opponents of Assad to work with his government to combat the militants. The United States and its allies fear that would help legitimize his rule.

"We are also working with our partners in Syria," Putin said after calling for an international coalition against extremism. "In general, the understanding is that this uniting of efforts in fighting terrorism should go in parallel with some political process in Syria itself."

"And the Syrian president agrees with that, all the way down to holding early elections, let's say, parliamentary ones, establishing contacts with the so-called healthy opposition, bringing them into governing."

The remark appeared aimed to suggest that Russia and the Syrian government are ready to show some flexibilty, without budging on the issue of Assad himself.

With reporting by AFP, Reuters, TASS, and Interfax