Putin: Al-Assad open to Russian backing of Syrian rebels groups

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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would allow Russia to simultaneously support his embattled regime and the opposition groups fighting inside his country, President Vladimir Putin said Thursday.

Putin said al-Assad was “positive” toward the prospect of Russia giving aid to Syrian rebels who are fighting the Islamic State militant group, which controls wide areas of the country.

“I asked him what his attitude will be if … we support (rebel) efforts in the fight against terrorists like (Russia helps) the Syrian Army. He said he was positive about that,” Putin said, according to Russia’s TASS news agency.

Al-Assad flew to Moscow for talks Tuesday with his long-time ally, his first trip abroad in more than four years since the outbreak of insurgencies in Syria.

Putin’s proposal comes as Moscow faces criticism that its recently launched military campaign in Syria serves mainly to bolster al-Assad by targeting moderate rebels groups – not extremist militias such as the Islamic State group.

Russian Foreign Minister Segei Lavrov will meet Friday in Vienna with US Secretary of State John Kerry to discuss the Syria conflict.

A US-led military coalition has been striking Islamic State forces and other extremists since September 2014.

In comments made while meeting with political and business leaders at the Valdai International Discussion Club in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, Russia, Putin said three weeks of Russian air and missile strikes in Syria are “bringing encouraging results,” but much work was left to be done.

The United States has repeatedly called for al-Assad to step down, arguing that his departure is key to ending four and a half years of armed conflict, which arose from peaceful anti-government protests in 2011. More than 250,000 people have died in the conflict, according to UN estimates.

Putin once again rejected the US position. “How can we from the outside make decisions and raise questions on whether or not the leader of a foreign country should stay in power?” he asked.

The emphasis should not be a political transition away from al-Assad but on battlefield success, Putin said.

A military victory “does not eliminate all problems, but it can create conditions for a political process with the participation of all healthy, patriotic forces in Syrian society,” Putin said in Sochi, the Interfax news agency reported.

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