Vladimir Putin Says U.S. Military Being in Syria is Illegal, Keeping Country from Uniting

Russian President Vladimir Putin called the presence of U.S. troops in Syria illegal during a Monday meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Moscow, according to the Kremlin.

The Russian leader also said that consolidating forces is the only way to "allow the country to get on its feet," the Kremlin quoted Putin as saying in a statement released Tuesday.

There are hundreds of U.S. troops stationed in eastern Syria to aid Kurdish-led fighters in combating the Islamic State militant group and Turkish forces present in the northern part of the country, the Associated Press reported.

While speaking to the Syrian leader Monday, Putin said that the U.S. presence in the country was not legal because they lacked permission from the United Nations or the Syrian government to be there.

"This clearly violates international law and doesn't allow you to make maximum efforts to consolidate the country," Putin was quoted as telling Assad in the Kremlin statement.

"Only a consolidation of all forces in Syria will allow the country to get on its feet and start steady development, moving forward," Putin said.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Putin and Assad Meeting
Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the presence of U.S. military in Syria is illegal during a meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad, according to the Kremlin. Above, Putin (right) greets Assad during their meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on September 13, 2021. Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Russia joined Syria's 10-year conflict in September 2015, when the Syrian military appeared close to collapse, and has since helped in tipping the balance of power in favor of Assad, whose forces now control much of the country. Hundreds of Russian troops are deployed across Syria and they also have a military air base along Syria's Mediterranean coast.

Assad has rarely made trips abroad in the past decade since Syria's conflict began, except to visit key allies Russia and Iran. Assad and Putin discussed cooperation between their armies and ways to continue operations to gain control of the last rebel-held areas in Syria, state media in Damascus reported.

Putin later announced he was going into self-isolation because of coronavirus cases in his inner circle. Assad and his wife tested positive to coronavirus in March, and recovered three weeks later.

It was the first meeting between the two allies since they held a summit in the Syrian capital in January last year. The two also met in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in 2017 and in Moscow in 2015. Syrian state TV described Monday's meeting as "long" and said the two were later joined by Syria's foreign minister and Russia's defense minister to discuss mutual relations and fighting terrorism.

Putin and Assad also discussed the political process in the war-torn country, the TV said.

"I am happy to meet you in Moscow, six years after our joint operations to fight terrorism," the Syrian TV quoted Assad as saying.

In recent weeks, Syrian opposition activists said that Russian warplanes have been carrying out strikes on the northwestern province of Idlib, the last major rebel stronghold in the country. The region is home to some 4 million people, many of them internally displaced by the conflict.

Last week, a Russian-negotiated cease-fire deal went into effect to end a government siege and intense fighting in the southern city of Daraa. The deal brought areas held by the rebels in the city under government control for the first time since 2013.

"We have the intention in Syria as a government and institutions to move in parallel between the liberation of land and the political process," the TV also quoted Assad as saying.

The TV said the during the meeting, the two leaders discussed cooperation between their armies "in fighting terrorism and the continuation of liberating lands held by terrorists." Assad's government refers to all armed opposition groups as terrorists.

The Russian president noted that "our joint efforts have liberated the main, overwhelming territory of the Syrian Republic." Speaking to Assad, Putin added that "the terrorists have suffered very serious, significant damage, and the Syrian government, headed by you, controls 90% of the territory."

Syria's conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests and later turned into a civil war that has killed half a million people and displaced half the country's pre-war population of 23 million, including 5 million who are refugees outside the country.

U.S. Military in Syria
Hundreds of U.S. troops are stationed in Syria to aid Kurdish-led fighters in their battle against the Islamic State militant group and Turkish forces in the northern part of the country. Above, a U.S. Army soldier declines the offer of tea as his commanding officer and allied troops meet with local villagers on May 26, 2021, near the Turkish border in northeastern Syria. John Moore/Getty Images