France is cautioning Russia against becoming further embroiled in the conflict in Syria, saying Moscow could find itself bogged down in a “second Afghanistan” — a reference to the Soviet army’s 1980s battle against the Afghan mujahideen opposition groups that led to heavy military losses for the USSR.
The London-based pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat says French officials called Russia’s decision to send military troops to shore up the regime of President Bashar Assad “dangerous,” Israel Radio reported Saturday.
The officials repeated the widely held Western assertion that Assad cannot be part of Syria’s political future, saying it is impossible to envision the president as someone who could lead Syria out of its current crisis and end the civil war.
Russia has deployed 28 combat planes in Syria, US officials said Monday, and a source in Moscow said 2,000 Russian military personnel would be sent to an airbase near the main port city of Latakia.
France — along with Britain — had expressed concern Thursday about the Russian military buildup in Syria, after Moscow said it would conduct naval drills in the eastern Mediterranean.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, speaking on a day of intense European diplomacy on the conflict, called on Moscow to justify the “very significant” Russian buildup.
Le Drian said: “We know what everyone can see, the very significant buildup of Russian forces both in the port of Tartus and above all, with the setting up of a military airport to the south of Latakia and the presence of several fighter jets, combat helicopters and drone capacity there.”
He said if Russia’s main intention was “to protect President Bashar Assad,” it should say so.
British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, speaking alongside Le Drian after they held talks, said he was “equally concerned” by the Russian buildup in Syria “which will only complicate what’s already a very complicated and difficult situation”.
Fallon warned that the focus on Russia should not divert attention from the need to deal with Islamic State jihadists operating in Syria.
“We should not divert our focus from the need to deal with the threat of Daesh [IS], the very direct threat to Britain and France, and the instability that Daesh is posing in both Syria and Iraq,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
US Defense Secretary Ash Carter also said Thursday that he would talk to his Russian counterpart again about Moscow’s military intentions in Syria, but cautioned that if the Russians insist on fighting the Islamic State without simultaneously pursuing a political solution to Syria’s civil war they will be “pouring gasoline” on the conflict.
AFP contributed to this report