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Russia Says No Ground Troops In Syria, Not Recruiting Volunteers

  • RFE/RL

Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov has said that Russian nationals who fight in the Middle East alongside Islamist militants are committing "crimes."

Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov has said that Russian nationals who fight in the Middle East alongside Islamist militants are committing "crimes."

Russian officials stressed on October 6 that Moscow will not deploy ground troops in Syria, and said it is not recruiting volunteers to fight on the side of President Bashar al-Assad.

The remarks from the Kremlin, the Foreign Ministry, and parliament came a day after a senior lawmaker said it was likely that Russian volunteers would travel to Syria to fight alongside government forces.

Russia "is not calling any volunteers to go to Syria, is not enlisting anyone," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said at a weekly briefing. "There are not and cannot be any ground operations, any troops 'on the land.'"

Russia began a campaign of air strikes in Syria on September 30, saying it is targeting Islamic State militants and other extremists in Moscow's biggest military offensive outside the former Soviet Union since that country fell apart in 1991.

The United States and its allies in a coalition that is bombing IS targets say many of the Russian strikes have hit more moderate opponents of Syria's government and believe that the Kremlin's real aim is to prop up Assad, who has given Moscow its firmest foothold in the Middle East.

President Vladimir Putin has said Russia is not now considering deploying ground troops. But comments on October 5 by Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov, head of the defense committee in the lower parliament house, suggested that Russian volunteers might fight in Syria with at least informal government approval.

Komoyedov said that volunteers who want to join the fight "cannot be stopped" and that "units of Russian volunteers will most probably appear in the ranks of the Syrian Army."

Komoyedov backtracked a day later, however, saying on October 6 that "any Russian ground operation in Syria is out of the question. This has been stated clearly."

Taking his reversal a step further, Komoyedov -- who is a member of the Communist Party, not the ruling United Russia party -- suggested the Kremlin was blocking attempts by Russians to fight alongside Syrian government forces or Islamist militants.

"As for possible attempts by Russian citizens motivated by material goals or ideological positions to enter the territories of Syria, Iraq, Libya and other states in the region... to take part in military operation on either side, Russian special services are doing everything to prevent that," Komoyedov told reporters.

'Morally Crippled'

The Kremlin denied Russia is blocking its citizens from fighting on Assad's side, suggesting it is neither preventing pro-Assad volunteers from traveling to Syria nor supporting them.

"I do not think this is a function of the state," said Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov. "If you are asking me about some people who would help the legitimate leadership of the Arab Republic of Syria, then [I would say] in this case the issue has nothing to do with the Kremlin's agenda."

"As a rule, such organizations exist all over the world and they act independently," he said.

Peskov said that Russian nationals who fight in the Middle East alongside Islamist militants are committing "crimes."

Putin is concerned about Russians who "fall into the paws of extremist and terrorist organizations, and there is a threat...that they will then -- already morally crippled -- come back. This is what the president is focusing on," he said.

Last month, a senior Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) official said that some 2,400 Russian citizens were fighting alongside Islamic State militants and other Islamist extremists in Syria and Iraq.

With reporting by Interfax, TASS, RIA, AFP, and Reuters
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