Washington is becoming increasingly concerned about the Russian military build-up in Syria.
TONY JONES, PRESENTER: Well right now, prompted by the global horror at the human cost of the refugee crisis, the Syrian regime is seizing the opportunity to reach out to the West. Yesterday, President Assad gave a rare interview to Russian journalists, first accusing the US of turning a blind eye to Turkey’s covert support for ISIS then offering cooperation.
BASHAR AL-ASSAD, SYRIAN PRESIDENT (voiceover translation): If these countries decide to change their policies and realise that terrorism is like a scorpion – if you put it in your pocket, it will sting you – if that happens, we have no objection to cooperating with all these countries, provided it is a real and not a fake coalition to fight terrorism.
TONY JONES: Until now there’s been no sign of the US backing away from its position that you cannot save Syria from disintegration as long as Bashar al-Assad remains in power. Questioned about this recently, Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, warned that the removal of Assad could leave a vacuum that ISIS could step into and take power in Syria. So should the West change its mind and support the Syrian regime against ISIS? Well Syria’s old ally, Russia, has no qualms at all about backing Assad in this existential fight, and to that end, Moscow has been steadily stepping up its military aid to his regime.
Well shortly we’ll cross to our guest in Damascus. First, here’s our correspondent Ben Knight on the Russian military buildup in Syria that’s causing serious alarm in Washington.
BEN KNIGHT, REPORTER: Unlike their invasion of Ukraine, Russian troops aren’t hiding their deployment to Syria, posting photos of themselves to social media. They’re there because Vladimir Putin’s ally, Bashar al-Assad, is in trouble, losing ground to both the Syrian rebels and Islamic State.
Bashar al-Assad’s army is still the most powerful force on the ground in Syria. But after more than four years of civil war fighting against two different enemies, it’s showing signs of exhaustion.
Its biggest threat is the Syrian rebels, who last week captured the Idlib air base. But Islamic State fighters are closing in from the north and the east, so Russia is beefing up its military presence in Syria. It’s expanding its air base at Latakia to support Bashar al-Assad. It’s also sending in tanks and heavy weapons, some of which have already been spotted on the battlefield in Syria. And Washington doesn’t like it.
JOHN KERRY, US SECRETARY OF STATE: I spoke to Foreign Minister Lavrov again yesterday, the third time in less than a week. I made clear that Russia’s continued support for Assad risks escalating the conflict and undermining our shared goal of fighting extremism if we do not also remain focused on finding the political solution.
BEN KNIGHT: Vladimir Putin says he’s trying to prevent Syria from becoming another failed state like Libya.
VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (voiceover translation): If Russia had not supported Syria, the situation in this country would’ve been worse than in Libya and the flow of refugees would’ve been even bigger.
ANNA BORSHCHEVSKAYA, WASHINGTON INSTITUTE: I think, frankly, the US has not played this well at all. Unfortunately, I think the United States hasn’t been willing to take charge, hasn’t been willing to really get involved in Syria since 2011. And on the one hand it paid lip service to certain ideas and principles, it said Assad must go, but it never really did anything about it and Putin simply took advantage of that.
BEN KNIGHT: But the Russian President is posing a question to the West: is Syria under Bashar al-Assad a better option than Syria under Islamic State?