MOSCOW / CAIRO: Vladimir Putin issued a robust defence of his government's military support for Bashar al-Assad last night (Tuesday), insisting that the fall of the Syrian leader would deepen the migration crisis.
Amid fresh reports that Russia is increasing its military presence in Syria, Mr Putin said Moscow would continue to supply weapons to help the Assad government and claimed Russian support had prevented an "even bigger" flow of refugees out of the region.
"We are supporting the government of Syria in the fight against a terrorist aggression, and are offering and will continue to offer it necessary military-technical assistance," Mr Putin said during a summit in Tajikistan.
Mr Putin dismissed claims that his support for Assad contributed to the refugee crisis in Europe, saying "without Russia's support for Syria, the situation in the country would have been worse than in Libya, and the flow of refugees would have been even bigger".
Russia has supplied weaponry and military advisers to Assad since Syria's civil war broke out in 2011, but Western military analysts say Moscow's involvement has sharply increased since regime forces suffered a series of defeats earlier this year.
On Monday, American military officials said that Russia had sent a dozen of its most modern T90 tanks, 200 marines and other military hardware to reinforce an airbase near Assad's coastal stronghold of Latakia. Previous satellite imagery appeared to show Russian forces turning the airfield into a supply base. The base would be Russia's second military facility in Syria, following the opening of a naval resupply depot in nearby Tartous.
A Russian military official said yesterday that troops and engineers had been dispatched to carry out urgent repairs at both bases, but denied any plans for offensive operations.
Analysts have suggested Russia's increased presence in Syria may be designed to gain leverage in post-conflict talks. Publicly, Russia insists that Assad must be included in any national government, but behind the scenes, diplomats are believed to be discussing his stepping down in favour of a mutually acceptable successor.
Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish president, claimed this week that Russia's UN envoy suggested an "elegant" exit for Assad in 2012, but that Western officials ignored the proposal.