Russian President Vladimir Putin says he has ruled out sending Russian ground troops into Syria to fight Islamic State (IS), but he is open to joining an air campaign against the militant group.
After spending 90 minutes in his first meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in two years on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, Putin did not back off his position that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces should take the lead in the ground war against IS -- a key bone of contention between the two leaders.
"We are thinking about how to additionally help the Syrian army," he said. "In terms of ground troops...Russian involvement is out of the question."
A Russian military buildup in Syria, a longtime ally, has raised concerns in Washington. Putin and other officials have previously said that Russia is providing weapons and training to Assad's army to help it combat IS.
Putin elaborated in an interview with Charlie Rose released late September 28 by CBS and PBS.
"Russia will not take part in any field operations on the territory of Syria or in other states; at least, we do not plan it for now," Putin said.
Asked if he meant air strikes, Putin said: "I mean war, combat operations on the territory, the infantry, and motorized units."
On joining the international coalition which has been regularly bombarding IS with air strikes, he said: "We don't rule anything out. But if we are to act, it will only be fully respecting international legal norms."
Mocked U.S. Strategy
In the Rose interview, Putin mocked the U.S. strategy of trying to defeat IS through a combination of regular air bombardments and training rebel forces to fight IS on the ground in Syria. He noted that a top U.S. general recently testified that the United States has only succeeded in training a handful of four or five rebels.
"Minor air strikes, including those by the United States aircraft, do not resolve the issue in essence; in fact, they do not resolve it at all," he said. "Who will advance on the ground after these strikes? In Syria, there is no other force except for al-Assad's army."
While Putin agreed to explore a political solution in Syria during his meeting with Obama, he stressed afterwards that any decision for Assad to step down must be made only by the Syrian people, and cannot be made by foreign leaders like Obama and French President Francois Hollande.
Putin admitted that part of Russia's interest in joining the fight against IS is to counter the threat posed by terrorists fighters in the North Caucasus who have joined IS and might bring their militant skills and agenda home to Russia.
"We have undergone a very difficult path of combating terrorism, international terrorism in the North Caucasus," he said. "We know for certain that today there are at least 2,000, and maybe even more than 2,000 militants in Syria who are from Russia or other former Soviet republics and, of course, there is the threat of their return to Russia."
"It is better to help Assad do away with them there than to wait until they come back [to Russia]," Putin said. "This is the main incentive that impels us to help President Assad."
A senior U.S. official said that after the meeting between Obama and Putin, the U.S. president came away with a clear sense of what Russia intends to do with its buildup of weapons, equipment, and forces in Syria.
“We have clarity on their objectives,” he said. “Their objectives are to go after ISIL [IS] and to support the government.”
The official said the United States does not view Russia's military buildup as necessarily destructive to a positive outcome in Syria, but rather that will depend on Russia's actions going forward.
If the Russians use their military solely to fight IS, that might be okay, he said. If they use their might to continue to strengthen Assad's battle against his own people, it will be negative.