Russia may join coalition airstrikes against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), Vladimir Putin said after his first meeting with Barack Obama – but he repeated his assertion that there would be no Russian troops taking part in ground operations in the Middle East.
Speaking to Russian reporters following the nearly two-hour meeting, which went on nearly twice as long as expected, Mr Putin said that the Russian air force could take part in an air campaign provided it was authorised by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and a United Nations resolution.
“As far as Russian involvement is concerned, we’re thinking about what else we could do to support those who are in the field really confronting and fighting terrorists – including Isil” Mr Putin said.
“In the case of Syria, that is mostly only the Syrian army and Kurdish militia groups.
“There is not, and cannot be, any discussion about Russian forces taking part in ground operations,” he insisted to reporters.
Mr Putin said his first meeting with Mr Obama had been “constructive, businesslike and surprisingly open”, despite major differences between Russia and the United States on Ukraine and Syria.
Earlier in the day the two men had exchanged barbs in separate addresses to the United Nations General Assembly, in which both attacked one another’s position in the Middle East and in Ukraine.
Asked about Russia’s recent military build-up in the Middle East, including the deployment of Russian jets to Syria, Mr Putin said he did not rule out taking part in the air campaign against Isil.
He also confirmed Russia had opened a “coordination centre” in Baghdad, where Russian, Iraqi, Iranian, and Syrian generals would discuss the campaign against Isil.
Mr Putin insisted, however, that any Russian involvement should be “in the framework of international law”, saying that the coalition’s current air campaign was illegitimate because it has not been coordinated with Mr Assad’s government.
He said the campaign in Iraq, by contrast, is legitimate because “it was requested by Baghdad”.
Earlier, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations said the country would table a resolution to create an anti-Isil coalition which would include Assad’s government.
Western governments have refused to coordinate their anti-Isil air campaign with Damascus because they say Mr Assad is largely responsible for the war that is raging in the country and that his forces continue to carry out atrocities against civilians.
In an apparent nod to Western insistence that Assad has no place in post-war Syria, Mr Putin added that “the fight with terrorism should run parallel with the political process in Syria itself”.
Western governments have long argued that the transition to a national unity government is a prerequisite to building a united Syrian state that could adequately see off the threat of Isil.
Russia has wavered between maintaining that Isil must be defeated before transition, or that the two processes must run in parallel.
Commenting on statements by Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande that Mr Assad must leave for progress to be made, he added: “I greatly respect my colleagues, the French and American presidents. “But, as far as I am aware, neither is a citizen of Syria, and they should not be involved in deciding the fates of other states.”