The attack on a UN humanitarian aid convoy near Aleppo, Syria, last month, which Washington has blamed on Russia, was actually carried out by one of the terrorist groups present in the area, the Russian president has said.
“It was one of the terrorist groups. And we know that, say, the Americans know it too, but prefer to take a different position, to falsely accuse Russia. This is not helping,” Putin said at an economic forum in Moscow.
The aid convoy was attacked on the night of September 20. The International Committee of the Red Cross reported 20 civilians killed and 18 vehicles destroyed.
Russia denied the accusation and said a US drone was monitoring the convoy, so Washington should know the truth about the attack.
Speaking before an economic forum in Russia, the Russian leader said the US should start acting like an equal partner and respect Russia’s interests rather than try to dictate terms to Moscow for things to improve.
“We are concerned with the deterioration of Russian-American relations, but that was not our choice, we never wanted that. On the contrary, we want to have friendly relations with the US, a great country and a leading economy,” Putin said.
As an example of disrespect, Putin mentioned the way Russia had been dragged into the US presidential campaign. He said both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump used anti-Russian rhetoric to score political points.
“They made Russia a priority issue of the entire campaign. Everyone is talking about Russia. It may be flattering, but only partially. Because all participants of this process indulge in anti-Russian rhetoric and poison the relations between our states,” he said. “This is bad for both our countries and the international community.”
The US and Saudi Arabia have agreed to grant free passage to thousands of Islamic State militants before the Iraqi city of Mosul is stormed. The jihadists will be redeployed to fight against the government in Syria, a military-diplomatic source told RIA Novosti.
"More than 9,000 Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS, ISIL) militants will be redeployed from Mosul to the eastern regions of Syria to carry out a major offensive operation, which involves capturing Deir ez-Zor and Palmyra,” the source said.
According to the anonymous diplomatic source, US President Barack Obama has already sanctioned an operation to liberate Mosul, due to take place in October.
During the storm of the city in northern Iraq the US-led coalition’s planes would only strike detached, vacated or uninhabited buildings, while keeping terrorists as targets, he said.
In September, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter confirmed that Washington would send an additional 600 troops to Iraq to help liberate Mosul at the request of the local authorities.
The source suggested that redeployment of IS militants is necessary because “Washington must somehow counter Russia’s achievements in Syria, try to diminish their importance.”
"Apart from the purely political dividends, the other purpose of this operation, obviously, will be to discredit the success of Russian Airspace forces. And, of course, it’s an attempt to undermine Syrian President (Bashar) Assad,” he said.
The leadership of Saudi Arabia’s General Intelligence Directorate will be the mediators and guarantors of the agreement on safe passage for the jihadists from Mosul, he claimed.
The source added that a similar scheme had been used by the US and its allies during the liberation of the Iraqi city of Fallujah.
Damascus has accused Washington for coordinating with IS after an airstrike against the Syrian government troops near the city of Deir ez-Zor on September 17. Washington said that the bombing, in which 83 soldiers were killed and over 100 injured, was a mistake.
Washington and its allies are using the Syrian crisis to play politics, instead of providing real solutions, Vladimir Putin told French TV. He said that Moscow has put forward an offer to send troops to safeguard aid convoys in Aleppo, while the West accuses Moscow of committing war crimes.
“This is political rhetoric that does not have great significance and does not take into account the real situation in Syria,” Putin told French TV channel TF1 during an interview in the central Russian city of Kovrov, when asked about the accusations that have been leveled by Francois Hollande, UK Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, and the Obama administration.
Putin then accused the West of destabilizing the region – citing the Arab Spring in 2011 as a key flashpoint for tensions that still dominate the Muslim world.
“I believe deeply that some of the responsibility for what is happening in the region in general and in Syria in particular lies especially with our western partners, above all the USA and its allies, including the main European countries,” said Putin. “Remember how everyone rushed to support the Arab Spring? Where is that optimism now? How did it all end? Remember what Libya or Iraq looked like before these countries and their organizations were destroyed as states by our western partners’ forces?”
Putin linked the volatility in the region to the recent spate of large-scale terrorist attacks in the West, which have either been planned or inspired by jihadist groups such as Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL), which have thrived in the chaos.
“[Before the Arab Spring] these Middle Eastern countries were not examples of democracies as we understand the word today, and there probably was a need and possibility to influence these societies’ organization, the state organization, and the nature of these regimes,” said Putin, who was attending a festival dedicated to Sambo, a Russian combat sport.
“But whatever the case, these states showed no signs of terrorism. They were not a threat for Paris, for the Cote d’Azur, for Belgium, for Russia, or for the United States. Now, they are the source of terrorist threats. Our goal is to prevent the same from happening in Syria.”
Putin also detailed his version of the breakdown of the long-negotiated joint operation between Washington and Moscow in Syria, claiming the key turning point was the September 16 US-led coalition strike on a Syrian army unit, which the Pentagon maintains was accident.
“Our American colleagues told us that this airstrike was made in error. This error cost the lives of 80 people and, also just coincidence, perhaps, ISIS took the offensive immediately afterwards. At the same time, lower down the ranks, at the operations level, one of the American military service personnel said quite frankly that they spent several days preparing this strike. How could they make an error if they were several days in preparation?” said Putin. “This is how our ceasefire agreement ended up broken. Who broke the agreement? Was it us? No.”
Several western powers have since blamed Russia for what they claim was a retaliatory strike on a UN convoy on September 20. Washington has now broken off any bilateral talks with Moscow over Syria.
But Putin says that Russia is still open to helping resolve what the UN has termed the worst humanitarian crisis since the war – which has likely killed over 400,000 people – began five years ago.
“It has been proposed that our armed units, Russian military personnel, be deployed on the road to ensure transit safety [for aid convoys to Aleppo]. The Russian military, who are courageous and decisive people, have said they would do it,” said Putin, who said that the initiative, which had not previously been made public, was an “exotic proposal.”
“But I told them that this could only be done jointly with the US, and ordered them to make the proposal. We have proposed this, and they [the Americans] promptly refused. They do not want to deploy their troops there, but they also do not want to pull back opposition groups – who are, in fact, terrorists. What can we do in this situation?”
Despite the downbeat tone of the interview, Putin insisted he was still “optimistic” about a diplomatic solution in Syria, and claimed that the offer to “reschedule” next week’s visit to France, which was canceled following a diplomatic snub by Francois Hollande, was genuine.
“This is not the best moment for official meetings, given the lack of mutual understanding, to put it mildly, that we have over events in Syria, particularly the situation in Aleppo. But we are always open, of course, to any consultations and dialogue on this matter,” said Putin.
Russia believes that resolving the Syrian crisis requires practical efforts from all actors that have real influence on the ground, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told CNN, adding that a peaceful resolution to the situation in Aleppo is still possible.
“We want to have a meeting of the countries that have direct influence on what is going on on the ground in Syria, either by being there … or through financing and supplying arms to the opposition,” Lavrov told CNN's Christiane Amanpour, adding that it would be a meeting “in a narrow format” involving Russia, the US and “some regional powers.”
The diplomat also confirmed that the meeting, which will also be attended by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, is scheduled for the coming Saturday. He said he hopes that it will be “a business-like discussion and not some general assembly-like debate” that would allow the sides to launch a real dialog based on the US-Russian agreement on Syria reached in mid-September.
Lavrov believes the involvement of regional players is necessary as the US is apparently not as influential on the ground as it claims.
“The key problem is the total inability of the US and the other members of the US-led coalition to separate the moderates from Al Nusra [Front],” Lavrov said, adding that the US, including CIA chief John Brennan, assured Russia in February that it needed two weeks to separate the moderate rebels from Al Nusra and “they never did it.”
Russia got “an impression that what the US and [their allies] really want is to spare Al Nusra [Front] and to keep it in case they decide to use a ‘Plan B’,” the minister noted once again.
“I do not want to suspect the US of encouraging terrorism but what they do in the case of Al Nusra makes me very suspicious.”
“We launched the ceasefire only to see the US coalition attacking the positions of the Syrian army three days after it was launched,” Lavrov said, referring to the US-led coalition airstrike on Syrian army positions in the eastern Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor besieged by Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL), which took place on September 17.
“They said it was a mistake, but I read [the] statement of official Pentagon representative, Colonel Thompson, who said that this strike was prepared for two days and was based on very good intelligence,” Lavrov said. “Immediately after this mistaken strike, Islamic State launched an offensive in Deir ez-Zor.”
Speaking about the situation in Aleppo, Lavrov said that Russia still “strongly supports the initiative by [UN Special Representative for Syria] Staffan de Mistura, who proposed that Al Nusra fighters should be [allowed] to leave eastern Aleppo with the weapons ‘in dignity’” along with the moderate rebels that want to “stay with them.” Rebels who want to stay in Aleppo, meanwhile, should join the cessation of hostilities, he said.
“We are still convinced that this plan of de Mistura's should be given a chance and we are working on it with the people on the ground,” Lavrov said, stressing at the same time, that “otherwise you cannot really expect the army of Syria to stop fighting Al Nusra, which is trying to use civilians as human shields.”
“It is civilians we think about when we support de Mistura’s plan,” the minister said, adding that Russia “tries to take all necessary precautions” in its operations in Aleppo and “advises the Syrian army to be very [precise] when targeting Al Nusra.”
He also once again dismissed accusations that Russia has committed war crimes. “All the statements have to be verified,” he said, adding that no evidence proving these accusations has ever been presented to Russia.
Speaking specifically about the UN aid convoy that was attacked near Aleppo on September 19, Lavrov said that Russia “insisted on the investigation of the attack on the humanitarian convoy” and “strongly insists that anyone who has information related to what happened should submit the information” to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who launched an investigation into the incident.
At the same time, the minister said that Russia is “open for discussions” with the West and has "never cut connections" with its western partners. He added that Russia’s goal is to uncover the truth about what exactly happens in Syria “instead of accusing each other without any justification."
He also noted that the US gets “a feeling that they are losing the ability to decide for everyone” as the world “is really becoming multipolar,” adding that it is “painful” for the US and forces them to use anti-Russian rhetoric.
The minister said that Russia takes such behavior “with patience” and prefers “be guided not by hysterical Russophobic statements but by a business-like approach.”
“If we want to save lives we have to be very pragmatic,” Lavrov stressed.
Lavrov denied that the US and Russia are on the brink of war and said that “it is not Russia’s intention at all” of starting a war with the US. He also claimed that it is the US military which says that “war with Russia is inevitable.”
He also said that as it accused Russia of a military buildup, the US “quadrupled” its spending on military deployments in eastern Europe, moved NATO infrastructure further towards Russian borders, and equipped its F-35s with modern nuclear weapons while also deploying them near Russia’s borders.
Lavrov particularly stressed that the US deploying its ABM systems in Europe and Asia is a “clear attempt to gain a one-sided advantage.”
“It was not our intention to drop from various treaties that used to serve as cornerstones for strategic stability,” Lavrov told CNN, referring to the Russia’s recent decision to suspend a plutonium deal with the US.
“The US did not [fulfill] its obligations,” he said, as they actually “changed the method” of plutonium utilization and the agreement became invalid, he said, emphasizing that Russia had “implemented its obligations.”
He also said that, in case of some other agreements that particularly concerned cooperation in the field of nuclear energy, the US had been the first to drop from the agreements and did so “a couple of years ago.”
Russia’s decision to suspend these agreements should be taken as a reflection of the real situation and not as an action that destroys the foundation of agreements that “are live and important.”
Speaking about the general situation in US-Russian relations, Lavrov said that he feels “sorry for what is happening now,” adding that he believes that Russians “have a lot in common with the US people.”
He also called the present level of bilateral relations “unhealthy” and said that it was not Russia that provoked this cooling of relations that “started long before Syria and Ukraine.”
“Being offended in politics as well as being unable to measure your response brings one to very unfortunate mistakes,” he concluded.