In an interview with the US filmmaker Oliver Stone that was broadcasted on the Showtime television network, Putin said Russian side held talks with Bashar Al Assad and his cabinet before the start of the Russian intervention in Syria, adding that reforms in the country are necessary.
“It turned out that President Al Assad understands many problems. He is not only ready for dialogue with the opposition, even the armed one, but is even ready to prepare a draft of the new constitution and also understands the importance of why the next round of the presidential election should be under strict, but neutral international control”, Putin was heard saying.
Putin stressed that Russia could really use some support of the United States and some of Syria’s neighbors as maintaining a dialogue and respecting Syria’s sovereignty are both equally important.
Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin told Oliver Stone that over a third of the jihadists in Syria are foreign mercenaries, who include Russian nationals and as Russia wants to work with the US in the fight against Islamic State, it won’t compromise its own security.
Commenting on Russia’s military engagement in Syria, the Russian president highlighted the stark difference in the scope of the operations carried out by the US-led coalition and those conducted by the Russian Air Force at the height of Russia’s involvement in the anti-terrorist campaign.
Putin said, at one point, Russian jets carried out “an average 70-120 strikes per day,” while “the entire international coalition led by the United States conducted only two to five strikes per day.”
“There is a difference. Everyone sees it,” Putin noted.
Moscow has repeatedly stated that its primary goal in Syria is to ensure that the jihadists who came to fight for Daesh (Islamic State, IS, formerly ISIS, ISIL) will not return to Russia and employ their battleground experience to carry out attacks.
“Thousands of militants from the former Soviet Union and from Russia are fighting there and may return to us, but we cannot allow it. This determined our actions that you know about, meaning the anti-terrorist campaign in Syria,” he said.
The Russian leader said that some 30,000 of the 80,000 terrorists operating in Syria are foreign fighters that come “from 80 countries, including Russia,” Putin said.
Earlier, Russia’s National Security Council estimated that some 2,700 Russian citizens from its predominantly Muslim North Caucasus republics have gone to Syria and Iraq to become jihadist militants.
Nevertheless, talking about the roots of Islamist extremism, Putin argued that “a world religion can’t be a source of evil,” and he added that he believes that the “divisions” that are currently “running deep” between Sunnis and Shias are reconcilable.
Russia is ready to lend support to Sunni groups fighting Daesh and al-Nusra Front. The al-Qaeda franchise rebranded as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and he added that Damascus “agrees with that, in principle.”
Commenting on the Syrian government, he said “we are perfectly aware of the fact that the current leadership in Syria made certain mistakes in building relations within its own country,” but added that President Bashar Assad acknowledges that Syria has “many problems” and is open to drawing up a new constitution with the participation of opposition groups and holding the country’s next presidential elections under international supervision.
Noting that it is impossible to settle the Syrian conflict without the full-fledged cooperation of all interested parties, including Russia, the US, regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt, Putin said that Moscow’s priority is not to “ferment the conflict” but to establish a dialog between the opposition and the Syrian government in order to prevent the country from splintering.
“It’s very difficult. It’s difficult to reach a consensus, but direct contact with both sides gives us such a chance. And in general we achieve success,” Putin said, noting that Moscow “acts very carefully” so as not to unravel the fragile progress that has already been made.
Earlier, the US Senate approved a measure imposing additional sanctions on Russia, while branding the country’s activities in Syria as “continuing aggression.”
Commenting on Nato, Putin noted that “when Nato comes into any country, the political leadership of that country as a whole along with its population has no influence on decisions that Nato takes, including the decisions related to stationing the military infrastructure.”
The military alliance presents Russia as “an alleged external menace that can only be tackled with US help,” president said, while noting “but very soon everyone is going to understand that there is no threat whatsoever emanating from Russia to the Baltic states or to Eastern or Western Europe.”
“And the stronger this understanding grows, the greater the desire to protect their [European] sovereignty and to protect their national interests is going to be. I assure you, this constant pressure makes no one happy hence sooner or later this is going to have consequences and eventually will stop. It is better if this happens through dialogue,” he said.
Meanwhile, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said Washington is often the first one to leak confident information to the public, such as the one related to secret meetings between Russian and US representatives on the Syrian issue in Jordan.
“Americans often ask us not to publicly announce information on many of our secret meetings and keep it swept under the carpet, yet they often disclose it to public in the end”, said Bogdanov in a response to the request of the journalists to comment on the subject.
Earlier, the newspaper Wall Street Journal reported that representatives of Russia and the United States conducted at least two sessions of secret talks in Jordan in order to discuss the Syrian issue, particularly to find a common ground on easing the tensions in some contested areas.
Jordanian officials reportedly participated in the talks as well.
Meanwhile, the US has moved HIMARS long-range rocket launchers from Jordan to its base in At Tanf in Syria, Russia’s Defense Ministry confirmed, adding that the hardware could be used against Syrian government forces.
The Russian military stated that the combat range of the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) “can’t support the US-controlled units of the Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqqa.”
“At the same time, the forces of the US-led anti-Daesh coalition have on several occasions hit Syrian government troops who are fighting against Daesh near the Jordanian border. Therefore, it’s not hard to imagine that such strikes on the Syrian military may be continued in the future, but this time with the use of HIMARS,” the statement added.
The Defense Ministry said that “the deployment of any type of foreign weaponry on Syrian territory, especially such as reactive multiple launch systems, must be agreed upon with the government of the sovereign country [Syria].”
Moscow is closely monitoring the situation on the border between Syria and Jordan, the statement added.
Earlier, a senior intelligence source told Reuters that the US military has moved its new truck-mounted HIMARS rocket launcher system from Jordan to At Tanf.
“They have arrived now in Tanf and they are a significant boost to the US military presence there,” the source said, while noting that the HIMARS has been stationed near US-backed militias in northern Syria before, according to the news agency.
Lockheed Martin’s HIMARS system, which is capable of launching various types of munitions, has an operational range of 480 kilometers.
US air forces have struck pro-government forces in Syria on three occasions in the last couple of weeks, saying that it was a “response to threats posed to coalition forces operating out of At Tanf.” The moves drew serious condemnation from the Syrian government.
Russia’s Defense Ministry earlier accused the air forces of the US-led coalition of working to undermine the anti-terrorist efforts of the Syrian government.
“Despite promoting the aim of fighting international terrorism, the coalition is striking the Syrian military, allowing Daesh terrorists to break out of encircled areas unhindered, thus strengthening the terrorist groupings near Palmyra and Deir ez-Zor,” Colonel General Sergey Surovikin of the Russian ground forces said.
A temporary US base was established at At Tanf over a year ago to train vetted forces to take on Islamic State.
The US recently unilaterally declared a so-called “de-confliction zone” in the area, which wasn’t approved by the Syrian government.