Russia will not participate in a ground war in Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin said in an interview Sunday, as reported by the state-owned news agency Sputnik International. Putin said his country's armed forces would continue to carry out air operations against terrorist targets in Syria.
"This is out of question," Putin replied when asked during an interview with Russian news channel Rossiya-1 whether his country would consider a ground invasion of Syria. "Whatever happens, we're not going to do this. And our Syrian friends know about it," he added.
News of this decision came after the Russian president increased his country's presence in the Middle East, where it has carried out multiple airstrikes in Syria in recent weeks. Some of the strikes targeted the Islamic State group, as Putin has made clear his allegiance to Syrian President Bashar Assad, saying during a speech at United Nations headquarters in New York that the war in Syria needed to be fought not against Assad but against terrorist organizations such as the militant group formerly known as either ISIL or ISIS.
Assad has been a polarizing figure in the debate over a resolution to the Syrian Civil War that has raged since 2011, with the president being accused of slaughtering his own people and using chemical weapons. The conflict in the country began after anti-government demonstrations associated with the Arab Spring turned violent, and factions started to splinter, as evidenced most dramatically by the rise of the Islamic State group.
Russian authorities have not made clear what exactly the interests of their country are in Syria, but Putin said Sunday he was concerned the Islamic State group could pose a threat to his nation. The Russian president said Friday there were more than 2,000 fighters from Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union who had joined militant groups in Syria since the beginning of the conflict there. Putin said Russia wanted to fight these militants in Syria before they returned home and sowed the seeds of their jihad in his country.
Looking to Russia's future in Syria, Putin said its presence there was a defensive one. "We have absolutely no desire to recreate the empire, to resurrect the Soviet Union, but we must protect our independence and sovereignty," Sputnik quoted Putin as saying.