Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday for the first time acknowledged that his country was involved in the Syrian civil war, telling RIA Novosti, a Russian news agency, that Russia is providing “serious” training and logistical support to the Syrian army.
Earlier this week, the website The Daily Beast ran a piece entitled “Russia puts boots on the ground in Syria,” which claimed the Russians were doing much more than training soldiers and providing logistical support.
The piece cited unnamed sources saying that Russian pilots are flying sorties on behalf of Assad, bombarding from the air enemies of the Bashar Assad regime including Islamic State and other rebel groups.
Speaking to RIA Novosti, however, Putin said direct military intervention was “so far premature.”
“To say we’re ready to do this today — so far it’s premature to talk about this. But we are already giving Syria quite serious help with equipment and training soldiers, with our weapons,” the British Telegraph quoted Putin as telling RIA Novosti.
According to the report – and contradicting the report in the Daily Beast — Putin was coordinating his moves with the US. “We really want to create some kind of an international coalition to fight terrorism and extremism. To this end, we hold consultations with our American partners — I have personally spoken on the issue with US President Obama,” he said.
The Daily Beast in the middle of last week quoted a blog tracking military dynamics in the Middle East and Africa as reporting that at least one BTR-82A has turned up in Latakia, in west-northern Syria.
The BTR-82A is the latest iteration of Russia’s domestically-produced armored personnel carrier and has only been unveiled in 2009. The Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) was first used in the Russian military in 2014.
The Syrian army relies heavily on Russian technology – most of it outdated equipment dating back to when Bashar’s father, Hafez Assad, was on good terms with the Soviets.
A YouTube clip posted by the “National Defense Forces,” a channel affiliated with the Syrian army, shows the BTR-82A deployed in combat in Latakia. According to a translation posted on the Daily Beast, the clip includes dialogue in Russian in the background – indicating that the machine is operated by Russian soldiers, not Russian-trained Syrians.
In mid-July, the website Business Insider quoted US President Barack Obama as saying that he “was encouraged by the fact that Mr. Putin called me a couple of weeks ago,” pointing out that Putin initiated the call to talk about Syria.
“I think they get a sense that the [Bashar] Assad regime is losing a grip over greater and greater swaths of territory inside of Syria [to Sunni jihadist militias] and that the prospects for a [Sunni jihadist] takeover or rout of the Syrian regime is not imminent but becomes a greater and greater threat by the day,” Obama said. “That offers us an opportunity to have a serious conversation with them.”
A statement from the State Department indicated that Putin’s comments on Saturday referred to the conversation in early July and that since then Russian-US coordination on Syria was not continuous.
Secretary of State John Kerry called his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov to express “concern” regarding the Russian intentions to increase involvement in Syria, according to the statement.
Kerry “called Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov this morning to discuss Syria, including US concerns about reports suggesting an imminent enhanced Russian military build-up there,” the statement said.
Kerry “made clear that if such reports were accurate, these actions could further escalate the conflict, lead to greater loss of innocent life, increase refugee flows and risk confrontation with the anti-ISIL Coalition operating in Syria.
“The two agreed that discussions on the Syrian conflict would continue in New York later this month,” the brief statement concluded.