Russian President Vladimir Putin warned the West on Friday against arming the Syrian rebels, which he said included terrorist groups, and against a hasty exit by Syrian President Bashar Assad, which would lead to a political vacuum.
“If the United States … recognizes one of the key Syrian opposition organizations, al-Nusra, as terrorist … how can one deliver arms to those opposition members? Where will they end up? What role will they play?” asked Putin during a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.
The United States announced earlier this month that it will start directly arming the rebels, a major policy shift by the Obama administration.
Putin also defended his country’s continued support for and arms sales to the embattled Syrian regime, positing that Russian supplies do not violate any international laws. He also warned that should Assad leave, a political vacuum would ensue.
“If Assad goes today, a political vacuum emerges – who will fill it? Maybe those terrorist organizations. Nobody wants this – but how can it be avoided? After all, they are armed and aggressive,” said Putin.
The Russian president charged that the rebels have been receiving weapons and support from the West for some time and that Syria would not be in the situation it is in without outside intervention.
Putin’s criticisms came hours after a report in the Los Angeles Times claiming the US has been secretly providing arms training to the Syrian opposition since late 2012, in US training bases run by CIA operatives and special operations troops in Jordan and Turkey.
“The premise that Assad is using weapons against his own people can be accepted as true only with significant reservations, because those who are fighting Assad are far from being the Syrian people but are rather militants, who are perfectly trained and armed, including from abroad, through channels that include those run by terrorist organizations,” said Putin.