DUSHANBE, Tajikistan, Sept. 15 (UPI) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that fighting terrorism -- and not propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- is Russia's reason for increased military presence in Syria.
Speaking in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, at a security conference of former Soviet states, Putin said a broad coalition in the Middle East is required to fight the Islamic State, which, he said, has plans to spread to Russia and Europe.
He added a strong Syrian army is required to fight IS in the Middle East, hence Russia's backing, and, while Assad is open to a political solution to the civil war which has consumed Syria for nearly five years, the international focus must remain on combatting terrorism.
His comments came a day after U.S. officials confirmed Russia is establishing a growing military base near Latakia, Syria. Artillery, tanks, armored vehicles, short-range guided missile equipment and modular housing for 1,500 troops have been transported to the air base, Pentagon officials said. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed the military buildup. Russia's only foreign naval base is also in Syria.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, said in Tallinn, Estonia, Tuesday that Russia's plans for Syria remain uncertain. While acknowledging Putin's claim that IS expansion must be curtailed, "explaining the purpose and seeing how it actually evolves on the ground are two very different things and we will be working on that," Dempsey said.
The civil war in Syria has killed an estimated 250,000 people and prompted a humanitarian crisis in which refugees have escaped to neighboring countries and the EU by the hundreds of thousands. The battles have involved the Syrian government army, militias both supporting and opposing the Assad regime, a U.S.-led coalition of Gulf allies, Iran and now Russia.