Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday defended sending more military aid to Syria, and he blasted the U.S. for creating a refugee crisis by its actions against Syrian President Bashar Assad, drawing a rebuke from the Obama White House, which has struggled for years to counter Russia’s moves on the world stage.
Mr. Putin said Moscow’s aid to Syria, which U.S. military and intelligence officials now say includes battle tanks and plans to set up an air base, is necessary to defeat the Islamic State terrorist group.
The Russian president said it’s impossible to achieve that goal without the cooperation of Damascus, a view opposite that of President Obama’s plan for destroying the Islamic State with a U.S.-led coalition that has depended on airstrikes.
“We are supporting the government of Syria in the fight against a terrorist aggression [and] are offering, and will continue to offer, it necessary military-technical assistance,” Mr. Putin said in televised remarks. “Without an active participation of the Syrian authorities and the military, it would be impossible to expel the terrorists from that country and the region as a whole, and to protect the multi-ethnic and multiconfessional Syrian people from destruction.”
The Obama administration, which has been ridiculed for its flagging efforts to train and equip a Syrian opposition army to oppose the Islamic State on the ground, said Russia’s latest actions in Syria are dangerous and wrong.
“Russia’s decision to double down on Assad is a losing bet,” Mr. Earnest said. “We continue to believe that their efforts to support Assad and continue to offer him support are destabilizing and counterproductive.”
Russia has staunchly backed the Assad regime — with which it has been allied since it was the Soviet Union and Syria was ruled by Mr. Assad’s father, Hafez Assad — throughout Syria’s devastating civil war that has killed about 250,000 people and turned millions into refugees.
The Kremlin has shielded Mr. Assad from United Nations sanctions and continued to provide him with weapons despite Western criticism.
Mr. Assad also weighed in Tuesday, saying in an interview with Russian media that all the Syrian people want is “security and safety.” The civil war in Syria and threat from the Islamic State have resulted in a burgeoning humanitarian crisis as refugees stream into central Europe.
“It’s not about that Europe didn’t accept them or embrace them as refugees, it’s about not dealing with the cause,” Mr. Assad said. “If you are worried about them, stop supporting terrorists. That’s what we think regarding the crisis. This is the core of the whole issue of refugees.”
He said political forces, whether inside or outside the government, “should unite around what the Syrian people want.”
Some security analysts say Russia’s influence in Syria is the latest example of Mr. Obama’s inability to confront Mr. Putin, who has refused to back down from military aggression in Ukraine despite harsh economic sanctions coordinated by the U.S. and its European allies.
“Putin’s decision to double down on Assad only complicates further the disaster in Syria that has spread to the rest of the region,” said Danielle Pletka, a defense and foreign policy specialist at the American Enterprise Institute. “We can draw conclusions about his strategic calculus: Syria is Moscow’s only anchor in the Middle East. But the more important lesson is that U.S. deterrence is dead.”
She said the lesson has implications far beyond Syria, extending to China and Iran.
“The reason we don’t have to go to war is because nations and bad actors fear the consequences,” she said. “Less fear means more opportunity for miscalculation and, therefore, conflict.”
Sen. Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican, said the “Russian reset” that Mr. Obama promised in 2009 “has proved to be a miserable failure because Putin respects only strength and is adroit at perceiving weakness and fully exploiting it.”
In an op-ed published by the Ripon Forum, Mr. Johnson said the president should use the authority passed unanimously by Congress to supply lethal defensive weapons to Ukrainians fighting Russian proxies.
“As Putin advances, the Obama administration continues to talk about offering Putin ‘off-ramps,’” Mr. Johnson wrote. “To prevent even greater destabilization in Europe, the West must realize that Putin isn’t looking for ‘off-ramps.’ He’s only biding his time and looking for the next ‘on-ramp.’”
The Pentagon said Monday that Russia is in the midst of a steady military buildup at a Syrian airport, indicating Moscow intends to create an air operations base there, although no fighter jets or helicopters have arrived yet.
A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, said the U.S. is closely monitoring the buildup, but he declined to reveal specifics about the Russian military personnel and equipment being flown to the base in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia.
“We have seen indications in recent days that Russia has moved people and things into the area around Latakia, and the air base there suggests that it intends to establish some sort of a forward air operating base,” Capt. Davis said.
He said the U.S. has concerns about ensuring that any Russian military air operations not come into conflict with U.S. and coalition airstrikes that are being conducted in other parts of Syria against Islamic State targets.
“We have said before that we would welcome Russian contributions to the overall global effort against [the Islamic State group], but that things that continue to support the Assad regime — particularly military things — are unhelpful and risk adding greater instability to an already-unstable situation,” Capt. Davis said.
The refugees fleeing Syria were the subject of discussions in the Oval Office on Tuesday between Mr. Obama and Spain’s King Felipe VI.
The president said the U.S. “feels it is important for us to also take our share of Syrian refugees as part of this overall humanitarian effort.”
The Russian leader urged other nations to follow Moscow’s example and offer military support to the Assad government.
He said that Mr. Assad was ready to conduct political transformations and engage a “healthy part of the opposition,” but added that “pooling forces in the fight against terror takes the priority now.”
Mr. Putin shrugged off allegations that Moscow’s support for Assad has sparked a flow of refugees, saying that without Russia’s support for Assad’s regime, the number of Syrian refugees heading to Europe would have been even bigger.
“People are fleeing Syria primarily to escape fighting that has been fueled from the outside with supplies of weapons and hardware. They are fleeing to escape terrorist atrocities,” he said. “Without Russia’s support for Syria, the situation in the country would have been worse than in Libya, and the flow of refugees would have been even bigger.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke similarly, saying it was “absurd” for the West to exclude the Syrian armed forces from the fight against the Islamic State group.
Both Mr. Putin and Mr. Obama will be in New York later this month for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly. The White House said there are no plans for the two leaders to meet; Mr. Earnest said the president’s schedule is still “in flux.”
“When the president has determined that it would advance our interests to have a conversation with President Putin, then he’ll pick up the phone and try to set up that call,” he said.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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