Russian president Vladimir Putin in an interview that aired on Thursday suggested that Western powers are using terrorists to destabilize the Ba’athist regime in Syria. “This is a dangerous and very short sighted policy,” he said.
The Russian leader, who started his third term as president in May, told Russia’s RT television, “Today, some want to use militants from Al Qaeda or some other organizations with equally radical views to achieve their goals in Syria.” He compared the situation to the United States backing mujahideen rebels during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s and warned that propping up Islamic extremists in Syria will similarly backfire.
The Reuters news agency reported in August that President Barack Obama earlier this year authorized American intelligence services to help Syria’s rebels oust Bashar al-Assad. The United States have apparently stopped short of supplying the insurgents with weapons but American allies in the region, notably Qatar and Saudi Arabia, publicly embraced the notion of arming the Syrian opposition as early as February of this year.
David Ignatius wrote in The Washington Post in July that “the United States and its allies are divvying up the pieces of an increasingly potent covert action program — with the Saudis and Qataris providing money and weapons, America providing communications and logistics and the Turks, Jordanians, Israelis and Emiratis providing intelligence support on the ground.”
The United States and the Sunni powers in the Middle East have all called on Syria’s Assad to step down. The civil war in his country, which pits the majority Sunni population against a minority Alawite regime that seems to be losing the support of Christians and Kurds who at the same time regard warily the radicalization of the opposition movement, will soon enter its eighteen month of fighting.
Russia, which maintains a naval facility in Syria at Tartus and fears that the toppling of Assad will embolden Sunni separatist movements in its own Caucuses frontier region, has blocked efforts in the United Nations Security Council to isolate Assad. The European Union and the United States have nevertheless imposed sanctions on the regime which prohibit Syrian oil exports.
In the RT interview, Putin rejected calls for a change in Russian policy. “How come Russia is the only one which is expected to revise its stance?” he wondered. “If we look back at the events in the past few years, we’ll see that quite a few of our counterparts’ initiatives have not played out the way they were intended to.” He raised the example of Afghanistan which Western allies are preparing to depart. “Are you sure the situation there will be stable for decades to come?”
Islamist violence in Russia’s Caucuses provinces has increased in recent months. In August, an influential Muslim leader was killed by extremists with six other people in the Republic of Dagestan. On Wednesday, at least four Russian soldiers were ambushed and killed in Ingushetia where less than a month earlier, a suicide bomber killed seven policemen who were attending the funeral of a colleague.