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Putin Calls For Backing Syria's Assad In IS Fight; Blames NATO For Ukraine Crisis

  • Mike Eckel

Russian President Vladimir Putin again gave strong backing to Syria's regime in leading the fight against Islamic State, as he called for a broader coalition to fight the radical militants who have plunged Syria into near anarchy.

Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly on September 28, Putin's speech served as a riposte to an earlier speech by President Barack Obama, as the two leaders presented to the global community competing arguments for how to stem a war that has threatened to engulf the entire Middle East.

Earlier, Obama voiced willingness to work with Russia, and Iran, in combating the Islamic State (IS) extremist group, but repeated the U.S. position that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must relinquish power to a transitional government.

Putin rejected that, pointing out that Russia was already providing military and technical assistance both to Iraq and Syria and many other countries who are fighting terrorist groups.

"We think it is an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces, who are valiantly fighting terrorism face-to-face,” he said. “We should finally acknowledge that no one but President Assad's armed forces and Kurdish militias are truly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria."

A longtime ally and supplier of military hardware to Syria, Russia has moved aggressively in recent weeks to move advanced weaponry and aircraft and a sizable contingent of military personnel, building up the Latakia airbase in western Syria.

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Russian surveillance drones have been spotted over several battlefield areas, and some of the aircraft are interceptor jets, which has raised eyebrows since the Islamic State does not have an air force.

The size and scope of the Russian deployment -- its largest outside the former Soviet Union in decades -- has stoked suspicions by Washington and others that Moscow is seeking a longer-term presence in Syria, possibly aimed at thwarting U.S. initiatives in the region.

Those suspicions deepened over the weekend, with the announcement by Iraq that it would share "security and intelligence" with Russia and Iran in the fight against Islamic State, an announcement that caught the United States off guard.

'Grave Geopolitical Crisis'

Putin dismissed those concerns, saying "it's not about Russia's ambitions," but rather "about the recognition of the fact that we can no longer tolerate the current state of affairs in the world."

“On the basis of international law, we must join efforts to address the problems that all of us are facing, and create a genuinely broad international coalition against terrorism," he said. "Similar to the anti-Hitler coalition, it could unite a broad range of forces that resolutely resist those who, just like the Nazis, sow evil and hatred of humankind."

Putin suggested that the United States was to blame for the instability not just in Syria, but also in Libya, where U.S.-backed air power helped pave the way for the ouster of Muammar Qaddafi, and in Iraq, following the 2003 invasion. He said pointedly that Islamic State fighters include former Iraqi military officers and Libyan soldiers, as well as moderate Syrians.

Like Obama, Putin also addressed the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, where Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in early 2014 and backed separatists who have waged a bloody insurgency against Kyiv's forces in eastern Ukraine.

He blamed NATO and its expansion into Eastern Europe and former Soviet states for creating tensions that led to the mass upheaval in Ukraine that culminated in the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014.

"They offered the poor Soviet countries a false choice: either be with the West or the East," Putin said. "Sooner or later this logic of confrontation was bound to spark a grave geopolitical crisis. This is exactly what happened in Ukraine, where the discontent of the population with the current authorities was used and a military coup was orchestrated from outside, triggering a civil war as a result."