Russia has said it is willing to join Western air strikes on Islamic State targets in Syria in a move that could help end its diplomatic isolation caused by the Ukraine crisis.
In New York to address the United Nations’ general assembly, president Vladimir Putin said Russia would conduct air attacks in Syria if it had the approval of the UN and the consent of Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s leader, who is a close Moscow ally.
Mr Putin also had talks with Barack Obama, their first meeting in two years and the first since Western moves to marginalise Russia owing to its annexation of Ukrainian Crimea and its military support for rebels fighting in eastern Ukraine.
The Russian president’s apparent willingness to take up arms against Islamic State indicates he shares a certain amount of common ground with Mr Obama and other Western leaders in their determination to confront the radical Islamic group that now controls large areas of Syria and Iraq.
“We have an understanding that it is necessary to ramp up our work at least at the bilateral level,” Mr Putin said.
“As far as Russian involvement is concerned, we’re thinking about what else we could do to support those who are in the field really confronting and fighting terrorists including Islamic State. In Syria that is mostly only the Syrian army and Kurdish militia groups.”
Moscow has already deployed more than 28 combat aircraft to Syria, along with a number of armoured vehicles and troops, and though they are there for “defensive” purposes at the moment it would require little effort to put them on the offensive. In response John Kerry, the United States secretary of state, said yesterday that Washington agreed “on some fundamental principles” with Russia.
“There was agreement that Syria should be a unified country, united, that it needs to be secular, that Islamic State needs to be taken on, and that there needs to be a managed transition,” Mr Kerry said.
Despite the common ground, differences between East and West remain.
The United States and its allies have called for the removal of President Assad as a condition to any process that tries to bring an end to the Syrian civil war that has claimed an estimated 250,000 lives, displaced millions and left the country in ruins.
But Russia maintains it is better to work with the Syrian government given the threat posed by Islamic State.
“We think it is an enormous mistake to refuse to co-operate with the Syrian government and its armed forces who are valiantly fighting terrorism face to face,” said Mr Putin.