Despite pushback from Washington and NATO over the Russia’s widening military buildup in Syria, Moscow is now calling on world powers to help arm government forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, calling them the “most efficient and powerful ground force” in the fight against the Islamic State.
The assertion Friday by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov adds a new layer of strain to the long-struggling Syria policy of the Obama administration, which has for years been calling for Mr. Assad’s ouster on grounds that he has authorized the Syrian military to carry out atrocities against innocent civilians in the nation.
Mr. Lavrov insisted Friday that Moscow’s goal in sending weapons to the Syrian military is to crush the Islamic State — not prop up the Assad regime, The Associated Press reported.
At a news conference in Moscow, the Russian foreign minister homed on the need for a viable ground force to fight the Islamic State in the wake of U.S.-led airstrikes targeting the group.
It’s a problem that has eluded Washington and its allies, who have had little success training a so-called “moderate” opposition army to fight against both the extremists and the Assad regime’s military.
“You cannot defeat Islamic State with airstrikes only,” Mr. Lavrov said, AP reported. “It’s necessary to cooperate with ground troops and the Syrian army is the most efficient and powerful ground force to fight the IS.”
“Our servicemen and military experts are there to service Russian military hardware, to assist the Syrian army in using this hardware,” he said. “And we will continue to supply it to the Syrian government in order to ensure its proper combat readiness in its fight against terrorism.”
There was no immediate reaction from the Obama administration.
But the Russian assistance to Syria shows just how deep the gap is between the U.S. and Russia over the best way to bring about an end to the multi-front civil war that has left more than 240,000 people dead and millions displaced since 2011.
It has been a staple talking point of the administration since the start of Syria’s war that the Assad regime’s violent military crackdown on opposition is what gave rise to the the Islamic State and other jihadist extremists in Syria in the first place.
After coordinating closely with Russia on the achievement of this summer’s nuclear accord with Iran, State Department officials recently said they hoped to seize an “opening” to strategize with Moscow on Syria — even sending U.S. Special Envoy for Syria Michael Ratney to Moscow for meetings in late-August.
Russia’s moves over the past week appear to have dimmed those hopes.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry said last Saturday that Moscow’s growing military involvement in Syria would “further escalate conflict” and lead to the loss of more innocent lives.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday that Russia’s actions “will not contribute to solving the conflict,” Reuters reported.