Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is ready to work with armed opposition groups committed to fighting the Islamic State (IS), President Vladimir Putin has suggested. The Russian leader made the revelation following Assad's surprise visit to Moscow earlier this week.
Speaking at a forum at Sochi on 22 October, Putin said: "I will pull open the curtain a little on my talks with President Assad. "I asked him, 'How would you feel if we were to find in Syria an armed opposition, but one that is ready to counter and really fight against terrorism, against [Islamic State]? How would you feel if we supported their efforts in the fight against terrorism just as we are supporting the Syrian army?'" Putin said. "He said: 'I'm fine with that.'"
Putin continued: "We are now thinking about this and are trying, if it works out, to reach these agreements." Putin did not make it clear which groups he was referring to, but the indication could include Syrian Kurdish forces who have been combating IS in the north of the country.
Russia's campaign of air strikes in Syria which began on 30 September, has come under severe criticism from the West, who claim the Kremlin has been targeting groups opposed to Assad, including those backed by the US. In response, Moscow has blasted the West for "dividing terrorists into moderates and non-moderates", and accused Washington and its allies of playing a double game in Syria. "You can't beat terrorism if terrorists are used as an excuse to oust undesirable regimes," Putin said.
Despite the barbed assessment, Putin alternated between condemning Western nations and urging them to unite with Moscow to fight terrorism. The key objective in Syria and Iraq is to "prevent terrorists from moving their activities to other regions," Putin said. "To do that, we need to unite all forces - the regular armies of Iraq and Syria, the Kurdish militia groups and various opposition groups ready to make an actual contribution to the defeat of terrorists."
A triumph over militants "will not solve all problems," Putin said. "But it will create conditions for the main thing: a beginning of a political process to encompass all healthy, patriotic forces of the Syrian society."
Putin ruled out expanding air strikes into Iraq, as Baghdad had not sought help from Russia. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov will meet US Secretary of State John Kerry and their Turkish and Saudi Arabian counterparts in Vienna on 23 October to discuss a political solution to the conflict in Syria, which is now in its fifth year.