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Russian President Vladimir Putin has dismissed criticism over his country’s air campaign in Syria, accusing Western governments of double standards in their support for the Syrian opposition.
Speaking on Thursday at a political conference in Sochi, Putin said the West is using some of the rebel groups as pawns to fit their wider agenda in the Middle East.
“Let’s not play with words and divide the terrorists into moderate and not moderate,” said the president.
“I would like to understand what is the difference. Perhaps, some experts believe that moderate bandits behead people in moderate numbers or in some tender way.”
Putin’s comments came ahead of a Friday meeting in the Austrian capital between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his counterparts from the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – among the most vocal opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regime – to discuss the crisis in Syria.
The talks in Vienna, which follow a surprise visit by Assad to Moscow earlier this week, will provide a key opportunity for diplomats to find out more about Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria.
On September 30, Putin launched a bombing campaign in Syria in support of Assad, thrusting Russia into the heart of the conflict. Moscow says it has hit about 500 “terrorist” targets since launching its campaign.
Russia says its strikes target the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group and other “terrorists”, but rebels and the US, which is conducting its own campaign against ISIL, say Moscow has focused more on forces fighting Assad than ISIL.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said earlier this week that Russian strikes had killed 370 people, including 127 civilians.
On Wednesday, Assad travelled to Moscow for his first known foreign trip since the conflict broke out in his country in 2011, holding landmark talks on the future of Syria with Putin.
Ahead of the Vienna talks, Assad’s fate remains a major stumbling block and, after years of failure to stop the bloodshed in Syria that has cost over 250,000 lives, there was little hope of any major breakthrough.
The US and its regional allies have long insisted Assad has to go for there to be any chance of a political solution to fighting, but Moscow says it must first help him defeat ISIL and other “terrorists” before talks can start on any reforms.